After three public meetings held over a 15-day period where residents of eastern Santa Cruz County expressed a host of concerns, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors (BOS) voted unanimously to accept a donation of land from Arizona Mining Inc. (AMI), a subsidiary of South32.
The agreement authorizes the county to accept AMI’s donation of approximately 134 acres of land for use as a park. AMI will retain an easement running through the donated property to build an industrial road, referred to as the Cross Creek Connector. The Agreement also states, “The County acknowledges and agrees that AMI’s reserved temporary easement is not inconsistent with park purposes.”
The agreement came to the attention of the public in late December 2021, when an ambiguous and misleading agenda item posted on the BOS website stated that the Supervisors would be discussing an agreement with AMI about a land donation. The wording of the agenda item led many people to believe that the county was donating land to AMI. Ninety-four residents objected in writing and in person, and the agenda item was withdrawn.
The county refused requests from the PRT over the next two months to get a copy of the agreement. The county then scheduled a study session for March 30, described as a “presentation regarding a proposed land donation from AMI to SCC for the purpose of providing a public park.” On March 29, less than 24 hours before the meeting, the county finally made public the proposed agreement.
Several attendees at the March 30 meeting complained that the 26-page proposed agreement was not posted until after 5:00p.m. on the eve of the meeting, allowing little time for public review and comment. Nonetheless, more than 20 residents spoke against entering into the agreement at this time and urged the County to leverage more protections.
Many attendees addressed the County’s description of the agreement as land for a park. Ron Pulliam of Patagonia told the supervisors, “This is not a proposal about a park, this is a proposal on an industrial road.” Almost all the speakers rejected the idea of a park with an industrial road running through the center of the narrow, hilly, and wash-ridden land, citing safety issues such as noise, lights, dust, fumes, and operating 24/7, adding that Patagonia has a plethora of beautiful parks and trails.
Per the agreement, the road will be a “30’ wide low-volume local rural road” with 12’ travel lanes and 2-3’ shoulders. The easement will be returned to the county when AMI no longer requires use of the road, or 24 months from the date that AMI is authorized to commence construction of an alternative and permanent access route on National Forest Service land through Flux Canyon to SR 82.
The Flux Canyon route will require a comprehensive study and approval from National Forest Service, which often takes more than 10 years to complete, a process that AMI has not begun. Several comments challenged the viability of this strategy given the ruggedness of Flux Canyon and the residential community along the road. If the Forest Service denies the request, the Cross Creek Connector could become the route used for decades.
A concern shared by many of the speakers at the study sessions was the description in the agreement of a “low volume local rural road for ingress/egress.” Many speakers expressed skepticism about the amount of traffic on the proposed road, and several called for a pre-decision detailed study of all traffic the road would generate.
South32 stated that initially there would only be 30 trucks per day using the road, a figure that does not include round trips by those trucks, as well as other vehicles. “Traffic figures from the mine do not account for the additional trips generated by sub-contractors, service vendors, suppliers of materials, chemicals, and other deliveries,” Chuck Klingenstein, of Patagonia, said.
The fact that this will be a public road also raised concerns with attendees at the meetings, as other mining ventures in the Patagonia Mountains would have access to this route in addition to ranchers, residents, and recreational users. Dangers to all types of users from the mine-related traffic were repeatedly touched on, including unforeseen safety and environmental liability to the county and taxpayers.
At the second and third study sessions, April 5 and 13, residents brought up additional concerns, citing uncompensated loss of property values, decline of quality of life and negative impacts on water, tribal and historic grounds, biodiversity, eco-tourism, local businesses, and wineries. Linda Shore, president of the Sky Islands Tourist Association, invited the Supervisors to visit Patagonia to meet with business leaders and walk through the area to be donated and designated as a park. She pointed out that, of the 65 business members of SITA, 64 were opposed to this agreement.
Dozens of speakers in all three meetings urged the BOS to delay a decision because there were many unanswered questions and studies that were needed to access impacts so the BOS could make an informed decision.
The final special meeting, on April 13, 2022, generated several hours of discussion and concerns, after which the supervisors went into executive session. Upon return to the special meeting, County Manager Jennifer St. John read a statement endorsing the acceptance of the land donation by the county. She stated that the land donation would give county residents peace of mind that this land would be used for a park for a minimum of 30 years. She added that accepting this donation provided assurance that the road will not be permanent. If the county chose not to accept the land, there would be no assurance that South32 would ever cease to use this road and the county would have no say in that.
Following a motion to approve the agreement, the supervisors spoke. Supervisor Rudy Molero said, “It is a very difficult decision, two parties that obviously are not yet connected. I look at the big picture and the history. Initially, Patagonia was a mine and now you have an influx of people coming in because of the beauty there, so I see the challenges.”
Chairman Manuel Ruiz addressed the audience, stating, “Your group was very well prepared, you all came in, but I did hear from other people that I had the opportunity to talk with, not just in my district, but some of the people in Patagonia, that are very supportive of the mine, but they are afraid they will lose business or a friendship and they don’t want to be singled out.” Ruiz stated a need to “give some of our young people the opportunity to be successful, to become voters, to become taxpayers, to become landowners,” adding that the mine will provide these opportunities.
Supervisor Bruce Bracker, who represents eastern Santa Cruz County, said, “I believe that this has shown that we need to have a more robust public process.” He added that he would work with South32 and the community “to make the necessary investments in these parcels of land and our community to protect our quality of life.”