//Vigneto: lawsuit not stopping 28,000 home development in Benson

Vigneto: lawsuit not stopping 28,000 home development in Benson

By Terri Jo Neff

Engineering underway for roads, utilities; first homes to be available in 2018
Opposition suggests endangered species in area; jaguar, ocelot, western yellow-billed cuckoo, southwestern willow flycatcher, lesser long-nosed bat, and northern Mexican garter snake
BENSON – A federal lawsuit tied to a Clean Water Act permit issued more than a decade ago involving 8,200 acres of privately owned land in northwestern Cochise County is on hold while two federal agencies consult with each other about what impact – if any – the Endangered Species Act (ESA) should have on the permit.

Thelawsuit, filed in May 2016by a handful of environmental groups against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, contends that plans by El Dorado Holdings to develop the Villages at Vigneto project along State Route 90 in Benson “threatens significant adverse effects to wildlife species that are protected under the ESA as threatened or endangered, as well as to their designated critical habitats.”
The groups filed the civil action in hopes of obtaining a court order forcing the Army Corps “to consult with” Fish & Wildlife about the 10 year old permit, to ensure species protected under the Endangered Species Act “are not jeopardized and critical habitats are not adversely modified or destroyed” by the Vigneto “mega development.” Wildlife noted in the lawsuit are the jaguar, ocelot, western yellow-billed cuckoo, southwestern willow flycatcher, lesser long-nosed bat, and northern Mexican garter snake.
Since then, the Army Corps and Fish & Wildlife have taken steps to consult about the endangered species issue, leading U.S. District judge Cindy Jorgenson tostay (put on hold) further court proceedingsin the lawsuit. A status report is due to the Court on April 3.
On March 14, Mike Reinbold, development partner for El Dorado Holdings, addressed a group of regional business and government leader. He explained that while the federal agencies continue to consult with each other, El Dorado is moving forward with final planning of Vigneto’s first phase which encompasses 750 acres. Engineers are on-site, Reinbold noted, utilizing a grid system in place across the property to digitally design infrastructure, the main Village Center, a recreation center, and the first home sites.

Once that first phase engineering plan is complete, Reinbold said the developer will present it to the City of Benson for approval.  El Dorado will then need 18 months to complete “horizontal construction” of roads and utilities for that phase and then vertical construction of homes and community facilities can be undertaken. Reinbold is confident some homes will be on the market in 2018.
Plans by El Dorado to develop Villages at Vigneto on what has grown to 13,000 acres of land has been ongoing for several years. Nearly two-thirds of the site is subject to a Section 404 permit issued in 2006 by the Army Corps to Whetstone Partners LLP, the property’s prior owner.
El Dorado bought the land in 2014 and has already secured numerous City approvals for the Vigneto project, which will be built out in phases over nearly 20 years and eventually include 28,000 homes, five golf courses, a variety of restaurants and shops, and nearly 30 community activity centers.

Afiscal impact studyreleased in September 2015 estimated Villages at Vigneto would generate thousands of new jobs and more than $23 billion in economic activity countywide over the expected 18 year construction period. That figure did not include sales tax or property tax revenue to local governments.
Judge asked to force Army Corps to consult with Fish & Wildlife
Under the Clean Water Act, a Section 404 permit is required prior to any activity that may involve discharge of dredged or filled materials into the “waters of the United States.”  Although the Vigneto project is not contingent to the San Pedro River, provisions of the Clean Water Act apply to the property because numerous natural washes cross the area and flow toward the river.
Even though the Army Corps has final say in issuing a Section 404 permit, federal law requires the Fish & Wildlife Service to evaluate the impacts of proposed projects like Vigneto.
According to court documents, the Army Corps began to reevaluate the 2006 permit in late 2015 “due to the changed environmental circumstances in and around the project area since 2006.”  Then in April 2016 the Army Corps and the Fish & Wildlife Service began discussion about whether a new consultation was required.
On July 20, 2016, the Army Corps announced it was suspending the Section 404 permit issued in 2006 “pending reevaluation.”
However, the plaintiffs believe a full consultation with Fish & Wildlife is required, arguing that information is now available about potential impacts to wildlife that was not known in 2006.  In addition, the lawsuit contends the larger project will result in additional “downstream effects of filling the washes and developing the parcel, and groundwater pumping and its effects on San Pedro stream flows.”
The plaintiffs – none of which are based in Benson – include the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, the Maricopa Audubon Society, the Tucson Audubon Society, the Cascabel Conservation Association, and the Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance. All the plaintiffs are represented by attorneys with Earthjustice of Denver, while the federal defendants are represented by the U.S. Dept. of Justice.  El Dorado Holdings is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Reinbold noted at the March 14 meeting the he is in contact with the Army Corps “on a regular basis” and he believes there has been “a change of federal government philosophy” since the Trump Administration took office. It is unclear what action El Dorado could or would take if the Section 404 permit is not restored by the time the City of Benson approves the first phase plans but Reinbold said he is ready “for all possibilities.”
Contact reporter Terri Jo Neff at 520-508-3660 or cjw_media@yahoo.com