For the past several years, residents of eastern Santa Cruz County have attempted to be heard by the County Board of Supervisors (BOS) on a host of proposals and actions benefiting South32 and its Hermosa mining project. The BOS have repeatedly disregarded public objections, concerns, and suggestions and instead have unanimously voted in favor of all of South32’s wishes without regard to expressed concerns on safety, health and environmental impacts—often with minimal transparency and little to no advance public notice.
Now, residents of Rio Rico have begun to experience the same frustration that we in eastern SCC have been experiencing for years. The supervisors appear united in their desire to bring jobs into the county, regardless of the cost and potential dangers to residents, mineworkers, tourists, our fragile environment and overall quality of life.
Supervisor Manuel Ruiz has repeatedly commented during public discussions about the need to diversify SCC industry to give young people the opportunity to be successful and become voters, taxpayers and landowners. Supervisor Bruce Bracker, who represents the district where the mine is located, has gone on record stating, “The goal is to make sure that we see the longterm benefit of having mining in our community.” Supervisor Rudy Molera said he would like to see the community continue to grow, especially if it leads to new career options beyond the Border Patrol, local government, or the produce distribution warehouses. He wants to make it easier to “keep families together” by giving young people more educational and employment opportunities near where they grew up.
However, many voters, taxpayers, and landowners are increasingly opposed to the mine. Over the past several years, the west side of the County has remained fairly silent on South32 issues, leaving a small population on the east side to battle the big industrial giant supported by county officials. Now, though, South32’s plans are impacting the west side of the county, and generating an uproar by residents who are concerned about safety and health, environmental damage, truck traffic and lack of transparency by government officials and South32. Sound familiar?
It started last December, when the BOS approved a resolution promoting economic development and land use along the I-19 corridor in the new Rio Rico “vitality zone,” giving the appearance of paving the way for South32 to build their remote operating center and manganese processing plant there. In February, the County hosted a study session on amending the Zoning and Development Code to allow for major changes to existing land-use designations. The amendment, known as Article 31, was originally floated as a county-wide initiative for “specific zoning plan districts.”
However, after public objections, the county decided to limit the code to only Rio Rico. In June this year the BOS unanimously adopted Article 31. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Andrew Jackson, a major landowner in the Rio Rico area, was working up a plan for mixed-use development of the 3,500 acres he owns on both sides of I-19, stretching from Ruby Road to Tumacácori. Jackson’s original proposal was submitted to the county in March, then resubmitted in May. A limited number of public notices were posted and mailed in mid-June, shortly before a community meeting scheduled for June 20, where Jackson presented his plan to a large group of Rio Rico residents. Many of the attendees only learned about the meeting through social media.
Jackson’s ambitious multi-use plan proposed to change land use classification of 18 parcels, currently identified as ranch and mixed use. Most of the crowd objected to the proposal. Many believed South32 was looming in the background.
Only two days later, the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) met to hear Jackson’s proposal at the county complex. During his presentation to the Commission, Jackson referenced a meeting he was invited to several years ago with county leaders, school district officials, and “a major employer” he has so far declined to name. “I am in favor of this. It is a good idea, but it wasn’t my idea,” said Jackson to the Commission regarding the proposals before them.
When recently asked by the PRT about South32’s involvement with Andrew Jackson’s plan, Hermosa Project President Pat Risner said, “We’ve not been involved in those discussions at all. That’s between the County and Mr. Jackson.” On July 22, the Tucson Sentinel published a letter submitted by Risner who clarified, “We (South32) are not involved in the rezoning proposal and have no contractual relationship with the landowner proposing it.” Back pedaling?
Again, the crowd exceeded capacity at the P&Z meeting. Like many presentations by the county, there was little time for citizens to prepare and little time to speak. The meeting lasted over four hours, with many Rio Rico residents expressing concerns that the proposal to create an industrial area and change the land use classifications was moving too fast and should have entertained more community involvement. Many also commented on the lack of transparency, the effects of development on the fragile ecosystem, the risk of polluting the Santa Cruz River, loss of property values, negative impact on tourism, excessive traffic, water usage and shortages…and gee, what happens when the mine leaves? Only a few speakers supported the proposal.
The commission unanimously voted in favor of Jackson’s Comprehensive Plan Amendment. Citing confusion and failure to communicate, the Commission unanimously voted to table a Specific Zoning Plan to allow Frank Dillon, SCC Director of Community Planning, up to 60 days to bring the case back to the commission with additional clarification.
A July 8 story in the Arizona Daily Star quoted Supervisor Molera as saying, “If it’s going to be something that’s going to jeopardize our health and safety, I’m not going to want it…I will not allow our health and safety to be put in danger.” SCC County Manager Jesus Valdez was quoted in the same article as saying, “We won’t support any mining along the Santa Cruz River or near our residents.” Where was their concern for the environment and the communities when the County consistently ignored the concerns of residents from Patagonia and Sonoita?
On July 31, after weeks of criticism from outraged local residents, Jackson abruptly withdrew his proposal and the BOS’s August 15 public hearing was canceled. The west side of the county, where the majority of the county’s population resides, clearly has political leverage that we do not have here in eastern SCC. We can only hope that their influence will help the Supervisors finally sit up and pay some attention to the concerns of residents on our side of the Santa Ritas.