300+ turn out for debate on Florence Copper Project land uses - SanTanValley.com

300+ turn out for debate on Florence Copper Project land uses

300+ turn out for debate on Florence Copper Project land uses

With the colors on display Thursday afternoon in the Sun City Union Center ballroom, it could’ve been Christmas — and it was clear what topped the wish list for a lot of people.

The ones wearing the green tags wanted to the town of Florence to approve the Major General Plan Amendments sought by the Florence Copper Project. Most of the ones wearing red shirts wanted the town to say no.

The town estimated attendance at more than 300, although most had left before the five-hour meeting adjourned around 10:30 p.m.

The Planning & Zoning Commission didn’t vote Thursday, but is expected to vote when it hears the amendments again on Oct. 6 at Town Hall, 775 N. Main St. The chambers at Town Hall can only hold 100 people and those who wish to attend are encouraged to show up early. The town will amplify the meeting in the lobby and outside to handle an expected overflow crowd.

You don’t have to go to Town Hall to see the meeting. It will be shown live on Channel 11 and online on the town’s website, florenceaz.gov. The meeting will continue to be available for viewing online for a few days afterward, Deputy Town Manager Jess Knudson said this week.

The Town Council will hold a public hearing and determine final action on the amendments at at its regular meeting at 6 p.m. Nov. 7 at Town Hall.

Text amendment

At the Sept. 15 meeting, the The Planning & Zoning Commission held its first public hearing on a proposed text amendment to create a new land use classification, the “Natural Resource Development and Alternative Energy (NRDAE) Overlay.” The applicant is Pew & Lake attorneys on behalf of Curis Resources, owner of the Florence Copper Project.

Commissioner John Anderson recused himself from the discussion and vote because he said he had already made a public comment opposed to the FCP.

Sean Lake told the commission that last year Curis was simply seeking a Light Industrial land use. But there was a great deal of concern about the lasting impact of changing the General Plan, and Curis withdrew the request.

Since then, Lake said he has worked with town staff for months to come up with the proposed “overlay” district, which will temporarily allow copper recovery while protecting the long range goals of the General Plan. He said he was shocked to see the town staff report recommending the amendment be rejected.

Lake compared the overlay to a special use permit that allows a feed store in a rural zoning category.

Attorney Paul Gilbert, representing Southwest Value Partners which owns 4,500 neighboring acres, said what Lake and Curis are requesting is a “euphemism” and a “canard,” and it’s still an industrial land use.

Gilbert agreed with town staff’s findings that the language was overly broad and could open the door to unknown “very deleterious” uses in the future. As for protecting the long-range goals of the underlying General Plan, “under their own criteria, it doesn’t happen in this case,” Gilbert said.

Neither is it compatible with surrounding land uses. “You’ll hear testimony tonight it doesn’t,” Gilbert said.

Armand Young of Anthem noted with the FCP, “We’re not talking about a feed store” but something that “could possibly pollute our water source.”

But Bob Russo, also from Anthem, asked “What’s wrong with an industrial use?” He said the FCP will be an OSHA project with safety standards, and if the regulatory agencies approve it, “Why would we not believe they have done their work?”

As for the alternative of building homes on the FCP property, “Where’s the infrastructure to build that fast?”

George Johnson, owner of Johnson Utilities, said the last speaker’s confidence was misplaced. “What does OSHA have to do with non-contamination of water? Nothing.”

Tara Walter of Anthem said the groundwater flows northwest toward the community. The environment has never been completely restored to its pre-mining condition after an in-situ project, she said. She urged the commissioners to listen to community members who are against the FCP.

Lina Austin introduced three high school seniors to the panel. She said they liked science and wanted to stay here and work.

She noted copper is a natural resource, and “Florence is blessed to have it. ... and it’s patriotic to extract it.” She said new housing won’t come for 20 years, so why not have the overlay that will allow the copper to be recovered.

She reminded the commissioners it’s not their job to protect developers and investors, nor is it their job to protect groundwater — state and federal environmental regulators do that.

Map change

The second Major General Plan Amendment would change the town’s 2020 General Plan Future Land Use Map to a lower density plan, with more parks and open space on the FCP property than is currently in the General Plan. It also applies the new NRDAE Overlay district over the property for copper recovery in the property’s “First Life.”

Town staff recommended this amendment be rejected also.

Land planner and architect Wendell Pickett of Scottsdale told the Planning & Zoning commissioners the “Second Life” plan is a very unique and positive option, with “a very large park and a very large commitment of Curis.” He said it’s similar to the existing General Plan “but it’s better,” with less high-density housing, which he doesn’t believe will be built anywhere in Florence.

Lake said the property is already in an industrial area, with quarries, power line corridors, the railway and Hunt Highway. “We’re really isolated by a lot of uses that exist today,” which he considered to be overlooked in the staff report.

Curis President and CEO Michael McPhie told the commissioners the project had once expected to build a series of nine or 10 water impoundment areas, but through engineering is now planning just five, “[reducing] our overall footprint on the property.”

McPhie said he liked seeing people at the meeting wearing stickers with the international “no” symbol slashing through the word “Mine.” “I appreciate that. ... We don’t see this as a mine. We see it as a copper recovery project.”

Rather than taking up space with an open pit and piles of waste, the FCP will have several hundred acres to offer for local recreational amenities in the first life, and will plant trees now for the second life, McPhie said.

He added a third-party consultant Montgomery & Associates, whom “we had no influence over,” concluded in a report to the town that the FCP would have no impact on the town maintaining clean water and the FCP is safe and consistent with the goals of the town’s General Plan.

McPhie told the commissioners if they’re for safe economic development, lower property taxes, new community amenities and making things in America, then “you’re for the Florence Copper Project.”

Gilbert, representing Southwest Value Partners, countered that the FCP is indeed a mine, and “any attempt to disguise that is very transparent.”

He said Curis hired a very fine planner for the property’s “Second Life,” referring to Pickett’s report. He said Curis is welcome to “go ahead and do that” without doing a mine first.

“If a mine goes in, the Second Life will never see the light of day,” Gilbert said. “... Can you imagine explaining to potential [home] buyers the presence of the monitoring wells?”

He said towns sometimes grow up around mines, but “how many mines do you know of after the fact in the middle of town?” He rejected the notion the FCP is safe.

“You can have the best-trained people and things can still go wrong. ... It’s not an acceptable risk when you’re in the middle of a residential development.”

Sidney Hay of the pro-mining group AMIGOS, and Robert Quick of the Arizona Mining Association, spoke in favor of the FCP.

Doretta Allison of Anthem said she is a real estate agent and her family is heavily invested in the community. She has met people who wanted to move here but couldn’t find jobs. She said if the regulatory agencies ultimately say the FCP is safe but we don’t trust them, “maybe we ought to worry about the water we already have.”

But Vicki DeLia said Curis can’t guarantee the water won’t be contaminated, “especially if they’re allowed to police themselves.” She asked if Lake and Pickett would like to move here “and be a part of the Curis experiment.”

John Ditullio with the McRae Group of Companies said they’ve attracted capital and investment to Florence, but now “you’re proposing a radical change from that vision” with the FCP. “...a 180-degree turn is something the capital markets are going to look very askance at.”

Alvin Wilson said he’s seen “a lot of fear mongering” about the FCP. He said he worked in the startup of this kind of operation in Colorado 20 years ago, and “it’s working very well; if you didn’t know what it was, you wouldn’t know it was a mine.”

He added the acid in question is similar to what farmers drip in their irrigation systems. “I fully support the mine.”

Charles Thomas of Florence Gardens said the FCP will control the acid solution because if they don’t they’ll lose money. “We can be assured it will go where it’s supposed to go.”

Jim Wallace, a retired electrician, said “I know what a mine is and this is definitely not a mine.” He said it’s a good system, a clean system, with good controls.

Rodney Lawson of Florence added it’s copper recovery, “and Florence needs recovery.”

John Felix said the country has degenerated to the point “we’d rather argue about a pot farm” in Florence, apparently referring to applications for medical marijuana facilities. “Let’s create some real jobs in America,” he said.

Albert Kerestes said he has a degree in geology and has found the FCP to be sound. “Business operators are hanging on by their fingernails and I’m concerned about that. There’s no opportunity for jobs. There’s no opportunity for growth.”

George Johnson said there are 2,000 “points of employment” within 30 minutes of Florence and San Tan Valley, and the mine isn’t needed.

Oryana Hudson of San Tan Valley asked if most of those jobs will support a family of six. “I’m absolutely for the FCP. ... the biggest thing for us is jobs.”

But Irene Capanna of Anthem said the FCP “threatens the water we drink, decreases the value of our homes and threatens our quality of life. We probably won’t be able to sell our homes if the mine is allowed to operate.”

Marilyn Callahan said 22 of her Sun City neighbors, currently away for the summer, asked her to convey their opposition.

“It’s not fear mongering when you realize the mining accidents that endangered lives and the Superfund sites that can’t be remediated.” She said all were approved by the EPA and all the corporations said their processes were safe.