The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
Recent media reports implied, through pure innuendo lacking factual support, that Mike Ingram, a Phoenix community and business leader and founder of El Dorado Holdings, used political lobbying at the Department of Interior to put pressure on a local United States Fish and Wildlife official to reverse an environmental decision that might have been adverse to Mr. Ingram’s company’s proposed real estate project. That project, called the Villages at Vigneto, would create an environmentally sensitive 28,000-home development on desert land in Benson, Arizona.
It is true that Mr. Ingram communicated with two top Interior Department officials. But ignored in all the media reporting was that Mr. Ingram asked that decisions be made entirely on the merits — on the facts and the law — and not on political considerations. You can read the legal memo and facts sheet he shared with the Interior Department officials. (Editor’s note: the documents mentioned are posted with this column online at tucson.com/opinion)
However, the local USFWS official, Mr. Steve Spangle, said a phone call he received from an initially-unnamed attorney from the Interior Department caused him to “feel pressure” to reverse an earlier decision that might have been adverse to the Vigneto project.
Mr. Spangle is entitled to his “feelings.”
But let’s look at the indisputable facts contradicting the innuendo about political influences that were virtually entirely omitted by the media reports:
- Mr. Spangle, as a USFWS official, had no responsibility in approving the permit under the Clean Water Act required to allow the Vigneto project to proceed. Only the Army Corps of Engineers (“the Corps”) had that responsibility. The Corps first approved the permit, called a “404 Permit,” in 2006.
The 404 permit allows for dredging and filling of 51 acres of desert washes. That same permit remains in place today. It has been evaluated and revalidated over the years, most recently in a detailed May 2017 letter, which you can read here. In the last several weeks, it was reinstated after temporary suspension due to ongoing litigation challenging the Corps’ 404 permit decisions.
- The only issue involving Mr. Spangle and the USFWS was whether a 144+ acre area along the San Pedro River near the Vigneto 8,212 acre development might “adversely affect” just three endangered species: 1) the western yellow-billed cuckoo, 2) the southwestern willow and 3) the northern Mexican garter snake. Yet virtually no media mentioned these three species. Nor did they report that the evaluation was limited to impacts on these species on just a 144+ acre area that was set aside by the Vigneto developer for pro-environmental “mitigation” purposes. Nor did any media report that none of these three species could be found on the 8,212-acre land where the Vigneto development would be located.
- In May 2019, after Mr. Spangle’s public assertions of “feelings” of pressure from Washington, the Corps wrote to the local office of the USFWS asking them to reevaluate the issue of the three species. On June 12, 2019, they concluded that, while they took Mr. Spangle’s concerns “seriously,” and their “reevaluation has occurred at the field office level only, with no regional or Washington D.C. headquarters review,” they concluded that Mr. Spangle’s final decision finding no likely impact on the three species was correct.
- See the Corps’ May letter here and USFWS’ June letter here.
- There have also been various speculations about danger to the water supply created by Vigneto. Indeed, one of the cable stations ominously warned of the possible “drying up” of the nearby San Pedro River some day in the future as a result of the project. Yet, incredibly, virtually all the media failed to mention that the only agency with expertise and jurisdiction on the water issue — the Arizona Department of Water Resources, or ADWR, — had determined that there was an adequate water supply for the City of Benson.
The ADWR issued a designation declaring Benson as having an “adequate water supply” to serve the expected growth from Vigneto for the next 100 years. In doing so, the ADWR determined that the city would not lower the aquifer beyond acceptable levels.
While there has been no definitive study of the effect of Vigneto on the San Pedro River, it’s simple common sense that if there is no impact on adequacy of water on the nearby Benson community then there would not be such an extreme impact on the San Pedro River just three miles away that it would dry up.
Probably the most important fact omitted by the media, inconsistent with their pre-conceived storyline, is the substantial support for the Vigneto residential development already demonstrated by the local population in Benson, Tucson, Phoenix and other areas of Southeastern Arizona.
Why? First, because Vigneto is a carefully planned environmentally-sensitive community. It will enhance the beauty of the local environment and preserve and conserve its species and necessary water supply for all surrounding areas.
Second, Vigneto will create at least 16,000 new jobs, and generate over $23 billion in economic impact for schools, health care and other enhancements to the local community and quality of life in Cochise County.
And finally, upon commencement of development, Vigneto will encourage the community’s younger generation to remain in the region to raise their families, rather than move out, as has too often been the case because of an absence of future economic opportunities.
Of course, these are the facts, not innuendo – and, despite recent media reports on Vigneto, they are not the same.