Pinal County’s former senior planner doesn’t think the first commercial enterprise associated with Superstition Vistas should be a garbage dump.
The vast Superstition Vistas area has been touted as the most precious of Arizona’s real estate holdings, a 275-square-mile expanse of state trust land situated in the path of East Valley growth that will ultimately hold up to one million residents.
A publicly funded, $1.65 million planning study of the area, southeast of Apache Junction in Pinal County, is about to commence that will produce the most thorough and farreaching pre-development plan ever conceived in the region. The plan’s promoters say it will bring about a revolution in urban development, resulting in communities that are beautiful, environmentally friendly and serve all of their residents’ employment, lifestyle and transportation needs.
But Pinal County officials are poised to approve a 450-acre landfill just east of Superstition Vistas without waiting for the results of that two-year study, saying the landfill would provide a vital service to the area’s future population.
Former senior planner Bonnie Bariola, who used to research proposed landfill sites for the county, thinks the timing stinks.
“Why is it being processed through the system prior to the comprehensive plan being completed?” she said.
Bariola also questions why some investors in the Silver Bar Mine Landfill project, such as Maricopa County Supervisor Andy Kunasek, haven’t publicly disclosed their involvement. “Why is he hiding?” she asked.
Bariola has created a Web site, saveourdeserts.org, which includes links to recent studies of the area by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University and an article she wrote criticizing the proposed landfill.
More than anything, she hopes residents will ask questions about the business venture and decide whether it would be an asset or a detriment to the future community before county leaders give it their stamp of approval.
“Who knows?” Bariola said. “It could be the best thing that’s been invented since sex.”
WHY A LANDFILL?
The proposed dump would comprise about half of a privately owned 800-acre parcel surrounded by federal Bureau of Land Management land northeast of Florence.
It is home to an active decorative-rock mine that the owners, collectively known as AK Mineral Mountain LLC, say has scraped about one-quarter of the area’s surface.
The investment group’s members include Kunasek, Phoenix attorney Michael Withey and solid waste-industry lobbyist Charles Coughlin.
Coughlin said a landfill is ideal for the site, which the group purchased out of a Tucson bankruptcy court in February 2005, because much of the hilly desert area has been scarred by mining.
About half of the site is undisturbed, which he said would be set aside as a public recreation area. The landfill portion would be capped in 50 to 75 years and ultimately used for recreation, as well.
Such promises would be established in a development agreement, Coughlin said, which also would include a requirement to pave the road connecting the landfill and recreation area to state Route 79 north of Florence.
The investment group already has obtained a favorable general plan amendment from Pinal County, the first of a dozen regulatory hurdles it must clear.
Coughlin was expecting no problems with the second hurdle, a zoning change from mining to industrial. But the Pinal County Planning and Zoning Commission last week postponed its recommendation for 90 days following a heated discussion in which commissioners demanded more answers than Coughlin could provide.
“The commissioners had a number of things they were worried about,” county deputy planning director Jerry Stabley said.
Most had to do with details of the development agreement, which has not been finalized, Stabley said, but it will be ready when the rezoning case is placed back on their agenda in late November.
Even without knowing the details, several cities and communities — including Florence and Apache Junction — have submitted letters in support of the project to Pinal County.
Apache Junction assistant city manager Bryant Powell said he could not give an opinion except to say that the area would benefit from another landfill, because the Apache Junction Landfill has only about a decade of use left.
“We want to be aware that there is a place in the future that is relatively local, so the service will be affordable,” Powell said.
However, the landfill would serve no purpose if the area’s two primary waste disposal providers, Waste Management and Allied Waste, don’t use it, Waste Management spokesman Don Cassano said.
Waste Management operates the Butterfield Station Landfill in Mobile, north of Maricopa, where much of Pinal County’s waste currently goes. The landfill has an estimated 75 years of capacity remaining, Cassano said.
“We’ve got a lot of volume in our existing landfills,” he said.
Allied Waste recently purchased the Cactus Landfill in Eloy, which still has another 100 years of capacity left.
Cassano said there is no cost savings associated with buying a new landfill closer to the community generating the waste, because both companies use transfer stations to aggregate and move garbage in large quantities.
Any successful landfill operator would need a buy-in from Allied Waste or Waste Management, he added, because those companies hold the bulk of long-term waste disposal contracts with local governments.
“You can build a landfill, but unless you control the volume going to that landfill, you don’t have anything except a hole in the ground,” Cassano said. “Chuck (Coughlin) knows this — he used to work for us.”
But Coughlin said there are a number of options available to the future owners of the dump. They could seek their own contracts from local communities or partner with another waste company not currently serving the area, he said.
“There are other companies that we’re talking to,” Coughlin said, although he would not specify which ones.
He said Cassano’s dismissive attitude toward the landfill project was no surprise.
“I would expect nothing different from Waste Management, which has a fully capitalized landfill in Pinal County,” Coughlin said.
In an e-mail to Bariola, Superstition Vistas Steering Committee member and former ASU Polytechnic Provost Charles Backus wrote that now is not the time for Pinal County to approve the landfill.
“We (the steering committee) are in the process of hiring an international firm to do visioning and planning for the SV area,” Backus wrote. “During this two-year study would be the appropriate time to consider the need and possible location for this landfill. Anything done before this study would be premature.”
But Coughlin said the county would not benefit by waiting until the Superstition Vistas planning study has concluded, because such studies generally don’t involve site planning for landfills and sewage treatment plants, which tend to be unpopular and controversial.
“It’s clearly not an attractive land use,” he said.
But that fact will not prevent the future residents of Superstition Vistas from generating solid waste, Coughlin said, and that waste has to go somewhere.
He said Bariola’s focus on Kunasek’s involvement in the project is a red herring, and that the Maricopa County supervisor has exerted no political influence to push the deal.
Kunasek and Scottsdale developer George Johnson partnered in 2002 to seek approval for a landfill between Florence and Coolidge, but Pinal County officials rejected the plan because the proposed site was located in a floodplain.
Kunasek did not return phone calls seeking comment, but Johnson International vice president Brian Tompsett said his company has no interest in the Silver Bar project, adding that Johnson and Kunasek likely would have sought out one of the two major waste disposal companies to operate the previously proposed dump.
“We don’t have any interest in running a landfill,” he said.
Coughlin acknowledged that he originally hoped Allied Waste, for which he does lobbying work, would want to buy the Silver Bar landfill, but that was before Allied acquired Cactus Landfill to the south.
Bariola said the county should not approve landfill entitlements that may benefit a few short-term investors if the area could be better served by a resort or other type of use on the property.
“Why go through the process of entitlement if it’s not going to pan out?” she said.