The Villages at Vigneto will cover some 12,000 acres along Arizona 90 near Kartchner Caverns State Park.

Ron Medvescek / Arizona Daily Star /File

Ten months after getting preliminary approval, developers of a 28,000-home subdivision in Benson are still hammering out a final master plan to send to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

Two versions of the community master plan for Villages at Vigneto have been reviewed by Benson and Cochise County staffers and three outside consultants since Phoenix-based developer El Dorado Holdings Inc. introduced the project in April 2015. The reviews highlighted vague descriptions, unrealistic timetables and the inclusion of invasive, non-native plants in El Dorado’s plans.

The developer hoped to have already broken ground on the project, and may be further delayed if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responds to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s calls for consultation on Vigneto’s potential impacts to endangered species.

In reviews of the latest Vigneto plan, submitted to the city Dec. 11, planning staff in Cochise County objected to unrealistically tight time frames for city approval of details that will arise as the project is implemented, such as plat sizes and drainage plans. Those timelines should be set by the city, not the developer, they said.

Another county reviewer said all water-conservation measures described in the Vigneto plan are “encouraged” or “requested,” which county planner Peter Gardner said seems unlikely to maximize water conservation.

In a Jan. 27 letter to a Benson planner, Cochise County Planning Director Paul Esparza said Vigneto should include more affordable-housing options. Vigneto’s thousands of employees, and most Benson residents, would likely be unable to afford the high-end housing in the development. He emphasized the need for improved back-road access to the subdivision from downtown Benson.

“We want to make sure that new development is integrated into the existing community,” Esparza said in an interview.

In their reviews, consultants Psomas and Rick Engineering Co. highlighted 32 “repeated comments” between them — issues they’d raised in earlier reviews that weren’t addressed by El Dorado in its revision.

The consultants also noted in a number of places that plan descriptions were too “conceptual” or did not contain enough detail to determine compliance with zoning regulations and open-space standards.

SLOWING DOWN

Developers hoped to break ground in late 2015 or early this year. But the project’s progression has slowed noticeably in recent months, said Michelle Johnson, planning tech in Benson’s planning department.

“It was a little rushed before,” she said. “Now it’s going down to more of a traditional time frame.”

It could be a matter of weeks or months before the developer resubmits plans, she said.

Benson City Councilman Jeff Cook said local officials felt pressured by the developer.

“They were trying to put pressure on us to approve the plan before we had a good look at it. They were saying, ‘We need to break ground, you’re costing us money,’” he said. Meanwhile, El Dorado “had not responded to 20 pages of concerns that the city and our engineering consultants had given us and then we had passed on to them.”

The company’s attitude seems to have shifted since December, Cook said.

“I think they have comes to grips with reality and they’re willing to let us take the time ... to give everyone a fair chance to look at it,” he said.

El Dorado partner Mike Reinbold said he did not have time for an interview late last week. But he said via email that El Dorado still plans to break ground this year.

“We are working diligently with the city of Benson to answer questions, provide information and to move the plan forward in 2016,” he said.

THE PROJECT

Vigneto, which supporters say would invigorate Benson’s lagging economy, could bring 70,000 more people to a town that has a population of 5,000.

But the proposal has prompted an outcry from environmentalists, including the Cascabel Conservation Association, the Sierra Club and the Tucson Audubon Society, which say the development’s potential to dry up the San Pedro Valley and damage critical habitats and threatened species hasn’t been adequately studied.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have also voiced concerns about the project and its predecessor, Whetstone Ranch, a project that was canceled in the wake of the housing crisis. In 2014, El Dorado acquired Whetstone’s land and its Clean Water Act permit, awarded in 2006 by the Army Corps.

Whetstone Ranch called for 20,000 homes on about 8,212 acres, compared with Vigneto’s 28,000 homes on 12,167 acres.

Last summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent a draft letter to the Corps requesting consultation about Vigneto’s potential to impact newly listed threatened species and their critical habitats, as well as downstream portions of the San Pedro River.

Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to consult with the Wildlife Service before issuing a permit for a private construction project that could affect an endangered species. The Wildlife Service says the Corps must also consider indirect impacts on species, such as a lowered water table due to groundwater pumping.

The Western yellow- billed cuckoo and northern Mexican garter snake have been listed as threatened species since the 2006 permit was issued. The expanded footprint of the Vigneto project, compared with its predecessor, means it could affect the endangered jaguar and the lesser long-nosed bat, too, the Wildlife Service said.

The Army Corps hasn’t made a decision on whether to consult with the Wildlife Service and reconsider the 2006 permit. Spokesman Dave Palmer said in an email that the Corps has all the information it requested from the developer to continue its evaluation, but may request more information.

Environmentalists are eager for that decision because in the meantime, the developer is proceeding with its plans.

El Dorado has maintained it can break ground on the permitted 8,000 acres and seek an additional permit for 4,000 more acres later.

That argument “ignores the responsibility of the Army Corps, the city of Benson and all other government entities to consider the impact of the project in its entirety,” the Sierra Club wrote in a Jan. 24 letter to the Benson Planning and Zoning Commission.

“The permitting process must begin anew and not rely on previously issued permits, which are dated to the point of irrelevance,” the letter said.

Without consultations with environmental oversight agencies and a fair permitting process, the Vigneto development will likely prompt litigation from opponents, leaders of the Tucson Audubon Society wrote in a Jan. 29 letter to Benson officials.

“We urge that the Benson Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council make the completion of agency consultations and required federal permitting processes a stipulation of approval for a final” community master plan, the letter said.

WATER LEGISLATION

Meanwhile, a state Senate committee has approved two bills that environmentalists say chip away at crucial protections for Arizona’s strained water supply — SB 1268 and SB 1400, both sponsored by Sen. Gail Griffin, a Republican who represents Cochise County.

Griffin’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

SB 1268 could take away some hurdles for Vigneto’s developer by allowing municipalities like Benson to opt out of a county mandate that any new development demonstrate an adequate water supply for 100 years.

The city already has a certificate of adequate water supply from 2008, which green-lighted the proposed water use for Vigneto’s predecessor.

But if Benson opts out of the mandate, that could limit opponents’ ability to hold El Dorado to the water-use limits under that certificate or to use the argument that the certificate itself isn’t valid, based on how the adequate water supply was determined, said Tricia Gerrodette, president of the Huachuca Audubon Society.

The legislation could also help push through approval of a 7,000-home development in Sierra Vista, which the Bureau of Land Management and environmentalist are fighting in court out of concern over its water use.

SB 1400 would require that the previously permanent adequate-water supply mandate be renewed every five years, with a unanimous vote of county boards of supervisors. Cochise and Yuma counties — the two that have adopted the mandate — would have to renew for the first time two years from now. That’s a big hurdle, especially when special interests are pushing for the right to use more water, opponents say.

Without protections, the San Pedro River is likely to become another victim of “short-sighted” development that doesn’t respect the fragile ecosystem of the region, said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club.

“We don’t know exactly what will end up killing the river, but we know that it’s under enormous stress,” she said.

Loss of the river and riparian habitats around it have economic consequences, too, as a massive tourism industry is tied to the San Pedro Valley, she said.

Contact reporter Emily Bregel at ebregel@tucson.com or 573-4233. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel