Center for Biological Diversity

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Developer Seeking Massive Pinal Rezoning Charged With Federal and State Violations
Johnson blades huge area, washes & cultural sites for sprawl city; his goats harm rare bighorns

NEWS RELEASE: for immediate release Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Contact: Carolyn Campbell, CSDP 520.388.9925; Sonja Macys, TAS 520.622.5622; Christina McVie, Desert Watch 520.744.0931; Jenny Neeley, DoW 520.623.9653 x4; Daniel R. Patterson, CBD 520.623.5252 x306; Julie Sherman, SC 928.213.1176

S. PINAL COUNTY -- A Phoenix-area developer seeking approval to build a 67,000-home subdivision with over 175,000 residents has been charged with violating state and federal environmental laws, according to public records. The proposed subdivision on the former La Osa ranch would cover over 22,000 acres and would be the 8th largest city in Arizona.

Scottsdale developer George Johnson’s proposed rezoning is to be voted on by the Pinal County Planning and Zoning Commission at a public hearing this Thursday. It would allow over 67,000 homes, a resort, golf courses, and commercial development west of Red Rock, near the Pima County border and Silverbell Army Heliport, and adjacent to the Ironwood Forest National Monument. The public hearing and rezoning vote is scheduled on the Board of Supervisors’ agenda January 7. Large portions of the proposed development lie within a flood-prone area of the Santa Cruz River.

Johnson received a notice of violation December 12 from the state Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). The notice charges Johnson with damage and pollution to tributaries of the Santa Cruz River without a permit. In its violation letter to Johnson, ADEQ states that if the activity continues it could lead to violations of water quality standards, destroy aquatic habitat and introduce contaminants into bodies of water. ADEQ estimates that Johnson has bulldozed nearly 20,000 acres of mesquite bosque and other wildlife habitat, without permits. The Arizona Department of Water Resources has concerns regarding the lack of enforcement of floodplain regulations.

“Considering that his plans for this massive development are well-known and underway, claims by the developer that permits are not needed because the land is ‘agricultural’ are ludicrous,” said Jenny Neeley, Southwest Associate for Defenders of Wildlife.

Federal regulations have likely also been violated. An unauthorized activity report has been filed with the US Army Corps of Engineers detailing observed violations of the federal Clean Water Act due to construction activities in the Santa Cruz River and other major washes, and an investigation is underway.

Johnson has been cited many times across the State for environmental law violations, including the largest drinking-water fine in state history of $80,000 for violations related to an earlier development in Pinal County. In 2000, the company was assessed $11,000 for other water-pollution violations, and an investigation is underway on a violation filed 18 months ago on a Johnson project in Apache County.

“Johnson has a destructive history of environmental violations across Arizona. ADEQ and the Attorney General must crack down now with maximum force,” said Daniel R. Patterson, a desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “His proposed sprawl city would kill the ecological integrity and remote experience in the north Ironwood National Monument -- including habitat for the pygmy owl, Tucson shovelnose snake and Mexican garter snake -- and end the rural nature of the area.”

“This company has a historical pattern of ‘destroy now; ask for forgiveness later,’” added Carolyn Campbell, Executive Director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. “This unethical behavior cannot be allowed to continue.”

Large portions of the proposed development lie within a flood-prone area of the Santa Cruz River. The Santa Cruz River has had unprecedented flood flows in the last 20 years, and similar flood magnitudes may continue to occur due to upstream urbanization. During these floods the Santa Cruz River transports massive volumes of sediment, much of which is typically deposited along the lower reach of the river in Pima and Pinal Counties. Constricting the river channel in Pinal County will result in decreased channel capacity and conveyance of flood flows, and is likely to cause large amounts of both in-channel and overbank sediment deposition, especially of sand, upstream of and throughout the development area.

“The intent of the developer to channelize the river in order to remove this land from the floodplain will preclude recovery of riparian habitat in this reach of the river. Riparian habitat is the most threatened habitat type in Arizona, and is critical to birds and other wildlife,” said Sonja Macys, Director of the Tucson Audubon Society.

The proposed subdivision is immediately adjacent to the Ironwood Forest National Monument (IFNM), home to the last known viable herd of Desert Bighorn Sheep in the Tucson area. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), federal overseers of the monument, has cited Johnson with trespass for allowing many of his 5000 domestic goats onto the monument. A disease causing blindness, called chlamydia conjuctivitis, likely spread from Johnson’s goats, has infected many of the bighorn sheep, a State Game and Fish Department (AGFD) official said Friday. It will take several weeks to determine the extent of damage to the herd, with a lineage that dates back 10,000 years. In addition to the trespass violations, BLM will require Johnson to pay thousands of dollars toward the cost of dealing with the problem. Over 30 goats were shot this past weekend in an attempt to control the problem, after numerous attempts to work cooperatively with Johnson were unsuccessful. Johnson continues to keep the goats in the area, an ongoing threat to the bighorn population. The State Lands Department has yet to suspend a permit Johnson holds to graze goats in the area.

“I think it's a huge threat,” Heffelfinger said (AZ Daily Star, Dec. 13). “It's something we really, really need to be worried about.”

An untold number of cultural sites appear to have been completely obliterated by Johnson’s bulldozing. Initial reports suggest that State Trust lands that are known to contain numerous archaeological resources may have been bladed. The Los Robles Archaeological District, on the National Register of Historic Places, appears to have been hard hit. The Arizona State Museum is currently investigating the scope of the damage and is also attempting to assess the extent to which various state and Federal cultural resource protection laws may have been violated.

Pinal County resident and archaeologist Jon Shumaker notes that, “These sites are the heritage of all Americans, and once destroyed they are gone forever. This would be a tragic loss for Pinal County, for Arizona, and also for local Native American communities such as the nearby Tohono O’odham Nation.” State archaeological groups and cultural resource professionals have expressed their concern.

On December 3, numerous environmental representatives spoke at the Board of Supervisors’ public hearing, urging them to consider the environmental impacts and impacts to the county taxpayers from this project. BLM is concerned that Johnson’s plans show development on over 2100 acres of federal public land near the monument, which are not being considered for land exchange. Traffic congestion and air quality would also suffer in northern Pima County from the 125,000 cars La Osa would bring so commuters could drive 45-60 minutes one-way to jobs in Tucson. However, despite the urgings of the public-interest and hunting groups representing over 50,000 people in the state, and concerns from Pima County, DoD, BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, AGFD, and Marana, the Board voted to approve a plan amendment for much higher densities.

“Environmental and cultural studies need to be conducted on the impacts before anything more is done,” said Julie Sherman of the Sierra Club.

Other contacts: Tony Herrell, BLM IFNM Manager, 520.404.7715; Lori Faeth, Natural Resource Advisor to the Governor, 602.542.4331; Jim Heffelfinger, AGFD, 520.628.5376 x530; Mike Traubert, ADEQ Water Quality Compliance, 602.771.2306


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