Greenbelt Battle Ends In Safer Neighborhood

Residents clean out overgrowth in nick of time

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Disputes between residents and their homeowners associations don't always end with everyone feeling like winners.

But that's what has happened in the battle between Lester and Margaret Burton and their homeowners association, in which the Burtons felt that all 262 homes in Payson North Unit IV and perhaps many lives were at stake.

Last December, Payson Assistant Fire Chief Don Rose called the overgrown greenbelt that loops around the homes of the Payson North Unit IV subdivision a nine on the danger scale of one to 10. Not only was the bone-dry vegetation itself a fire hazard, Rose said, but it was so thick that, if a fire did break out, fire crews couldn't get through the tangle of undergrowth to fight it.

But on Friday, here's what Rose said of the very same greenbelt: "It looks great. I think they've eliminated as much potential for hazard as they can ... Now, if a fire starts in there, it will just be a small, creeping fire that's very accessible and very easy to put out."

And now, all the major players in this feud including the Burtons and their homeowners association board are happy with the solution.

Originally, the Burtons spearheaded the movement to clear the greenbelt, but they were at loggerheads with the Unit IV Homeowners Association, which President Keith Blankenbeuhler said had accomplished everything that could be done to clean up the greenbelt at least as far as the voting homeowners were concerned.

So the Burtons contacted the Payson Fire Department, the Arizona State Land Department, the Governor, and anyone else they thought might listen. All agreed that the Unit IV greenbelt was a disaster waiting to happen.

"There are solutions," said Bruce Wilson, president of the Payson North Unit III Homeowners Association, who spearheaded a similar cleanup in his neighborhood. "There may not be a solution that makes everyone perfectly happy. But there are solutions."

He was right.

The primary stumbling block of the homeowners association board, Blankenbeuhler said, were meetings at which voters pressed for individual homeowners to take care of the sections of greenbelt near their homes.

"But there is no way that people on limited incomes or who are ill can chop this stuff down," Blankenbeuhler said. "That's why the board, on its own, met and decided it had to take action."

That decision, he said, was made in early April which was several months after the Burtons took the issue up with local and state fire officials, and after four months of inquiries from Assistant Fire Chief Don Rose and Payson Fire Marshall Jack Babb who called the association regularly to find out when the cleanup would take place.

The homeowners association hired the Mesa-based Marchand Co. to clean up the greenbelt for just under $11,000, which was low enough to be paid for out of the association's savings rather than by assessing individual homeowners.

Sue Tasso, president of Marchand, said the Unit IV greenbelt was "so thick with manzanita, the fire department wouldn't have had the access they needed. And any fire would have traveled very quickly from the bushes to the trees and on up, where it becomes much harder to deal with.

"We didn't eliminate the fire danger all the way," Tasso said. "Everything out there is flammable. But if a fire were to get started, it would stay closer to the ground and be easier to put out before it really did some damage."

"It's 100 percent better than it was. It's like night and day," Wilson said. "And there's not a chance in Hell this would have happened without the Burtons. Without their lead, I don't know when or if this would have ever been accomplished."

"I really feel the Burtons were the ones that got the ball rolling," said Unit IV homeowner Larry Lantagne. "But Keith Blankenbeuhler and (HOA board member) Roger Thrasher worked real hard. They did a fantastic job themselves."

Blankenbeuhler won't credit the Burtons for initiating the cleanup movement. But he does say,"There's no room for ill feelings. The only point is, the end result is a good one."

And that result has eliminated a potential nightmare, Blankenbeuhler said.

"I was floored by the films of the New Mexico fire, where the fire would spread from treetop to treetop six trees at a time. It was really frightening ... So we're not just feeling a sense of satisfaction, but also relief."

There is another point upon which Blankenbeuhler and the Burtons have found agreement.

"There's a lot of areas in town which need (similar) help," Blankenbeuhler said. "What I'd tell them is to get the blinders off ... and figure out how to deal with it."

"To be really effective," Margaret Burton said, "these cleanups have to be done all over town. And I'd be very happy to help guide anyone through the process, to help show them where to start."

For more information, call Margaret Burton at 474-5888.

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