A north Mesa subdivision sailed through the Mesa City Council after protests from neighbors fizzled and air quality tests determined that an asphalt plant posed no public health threat.
The council last week unanimously approved Lehi Cove’s zoning, along with a related annexation case, after reviewing an air quality report compiled by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality earlier this summer.
Lehi Cove had been placed on hold for a year after residents of another development, Lehi Crossing, deluged the city with more than 200 complaints about the nearby Vulcan Materials asphalt plant.
Lehi Cove is on the north side of Thomas Road, near Val Vista Drive, while Lehi Crossing is closer to the plant, on the south side of Thomas.
The DEQ report essentially found that some people were irritated by odors from the plant, but there was no evidence of any additional health risk.
Misael Cabrera, director of DEQ, told the council at a June 26 study session that people often presume the worst possible scenario when they smell unpleasant odors.
“I will tell you this is not uncommon. Our noses are quite good at detecting odors,’’ he said, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a health risk present.
“We actually did a very thorough monitoring event,’’ Cabrera said, noting the levels of dust and smoke were well below standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“We did not exceed any health-based guidelines,’’ he said. “The probability of a health impact in this neighborhood or in any future neighborhood is probably low.’’
Cabrera’s department reached this conclusion after five days of monitoring in late April and early May, during which the plant was in operation for two days.
A map showed the maximum amount of emissions directly to the north and west of the plant, but they still did not rise to the level of endangering health. The readings were lower at the Lehi Cove site.
A staff report to the city council said that residents filed 214 complaints from June 2018 to June 2019, prompting the city to seek assistance from DEQ.
Mesa Mayor John Giles said the DEQ report was vital to determine if Vulcan’s operation threatened Lehi Crossing residents, and if the city would be compounding the problem by approving Lehi Cove.
A real estate website listed several houses that were built in Lehi Crossing this decade with prices in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. Pricing for Lehi Cove has not been determined.
“This zoning case has been on hold for about a year because I and other council members wanted some data,’’ Giles said.
The delay was necessary, he said, to take the issue “beyond the emotional level.’’
Beyond the policy issue of whether to approve the annexation and zoning, Giles said he was concerned on a personal level because his daughter, his three grand-children and his son-in-law live in Lehi Crossing, but not immediately adjacent to the plant.
“I think it’s an odor problem,’’ Giles said, when asked about the large number of complaints. “Odors and something that will make you sick are two different things.’’
At the June meeting, City Council member Jen Duff expressed concerns about odors.
“I think odors are more disturbing. If you walk into a room and there is an odor you don’t like, it sets the tone,’’ Duff said.
But Duff said her concerns were answered by the DEQ report and that she also was pleased that Vulcan voluntarily made improvements aimed at becoming a good neighbor.
Traditionally, the bucolic north Mesa area was known for its row upon row of orange and grapefruit trees, but the citrus industry has gradually declined and development created more potential for conflict between new residents and Vulcan, which has been in operation for 17 years.
“Although Val Vista (plant) is in compliance with all laws and regulations and is considered by local, state and federal regulatory officials to be protective of public health and safety, we made a commitment to make improvements,’’ Vulcan said in a statement.
These improvements included the elimination of aggregate crushing and screening during night hours, shifting operations away from nearby homes and hiring a team of engineers to recommend ways of eliminating odors.
The Alabama-based company said it is planning to install new “air capture systems,’’ and to install new tank controls to reduce the release of vapors. The operation essentially is an open pit mine used for the manufacture of asphalt.
Bryan Morganstern, a managing member of Sky Bridge Companies, the developer of Lehi Cove, praised Vulcan’s efforts and said he is relieved that Mesa finally granted the zoning approvals.
He said Lehi Cove will have 89 attached homes, with three to five units per building. Work is scheduled to start within 30 days and it will probably take about a year to build out the development. The units will be just under 2,000 square feet and will feature three bedrooms.
The terms of the zoning case’s approval require Sky Bridge to notify potential buyers that there is an asphalt plant one-quarter of a mile away.
“I don’t think there is anything unsafe. We feel very good about the property,’’ Morganstern said.
Although there was a substantial delay, he said the DEQ report was critical in breaking an impasse on the case.
“That was the only way we were going to get the city of Mesa to approve us,’’ Morganstern said, adding that he was relieved by the council’s decision. “We’re grateful for Vulcan stepping up and making some changes. Everyone went beyond the call of duty.’’
Morganstern said he anticipates that Lehi Cove’s buyers will be mostly young couples looking for a value, who will be lured by the nearby freeway access.
“I think it will be first time homebuyers who want to live the area,’’ he said. “Hopefully, we didn’t miss the market.’’