The harvesting of granite with dynamite and large trucks at the south end of Pine has neighbors all shook up.
A 15-acre parcel sits just south of Bradshaw and at the east end of Sharyn Road in Pine and is in the middle of a heated debate that has landed on the desk of County Attorney Daisy Gilker.
The question before her is complex. Originally, when homeowners in the Strawberry Mountain Shadows subdivision bought their property, they were adjacent to the national forest.
In 1989, the property was a part of a Forest Service Land Exchange and became the private property of Donald Reed. According to county records, the property was zoned residential and slated for development of four-acre parcels.
In 1994, Reed applied for, and was granted, a rezoning from four-acres plots to one-and-a-half acre plots.
Two years ago, Reed sold the property to Muleshoe X Cattle Company, a family partnership, partner Robert Randall said. During the negotiations and sale, the land was pressed into service.
"We haven't made it a mine, we are excavating for a couple of water tanks," Randall said, shortly after the last blast in April.
In order to pay Payson Concrete, another family-owned business in which Randall is a partner, for the excavation, the company is harvesting the purple-colored rock granite from the site. The granite is a valuable rock that Payson Concrete uses in its driveway material.
To harvest rock, they need to blast.
"The ground is so compact here, you can't dig," Glenda Davenport said. Davenport is one of two Deputy Mine Inspectors from the Arizona State Mine Inspector's office who were present for the last blast, April 22.
"(Blasting) just fluffed the ground up. Now you can dig."
"It's like when you dig a tree out of the ground and it seems like there is more dirt than hole," Davenport said, "It adds air to the dirt, 'fluffing' it."
Fluffing rock takes a lot of explosives. In April Blasting Contractors, LLC, the company hired by Payson Concrete, detonated more than 40,000-pounds of explosive in three blasts. And there maybe five or six more blasts before the work is complete, Randall said.
That has neighbors seeing red. Several residents on Sharyn Road have contacted Blasting Contractors' insurance company to have their homes inspected by a structural engineer for damage. But it is more than just the damage that has them circulating petitions and calling county officials. Residents complain about not being notified prior to the blasts, truck traffic, property values, and the questionable legality of it all.
"This area is zoned residential," Bob Chapman, a Sharyn Road resident, said.
And that is at the root of the question before the county attorney, what is commercial and what is residential?
"Under state law, mining operations are exempt from local zoning," Terry Smith, Gila County Planning Deputy Manager and Deputy Director of Community Development, said. But there is still the residential zoning issue.
"That is where the hang up is," Smith said. He added, Arizona Revised Statute 11-830, "Nothing contained in any ordinance shall ... prevent, restrict or otherwise regulate the use or occupation of land or improvements for railroad, mining, metallurgical, grazing or general agricultural purposes if the tract concerned is five or more contiguous commercial acres."
"The first thought is that when you say commercial, that it is zoned commercial but that may not be so," Smith said. There is no definition of a commercial acre in the statute. "That is the first interpretation that you think of, but that creates a conflict," Smith said.
If you re-read the statute, you will see that local zoning would impose regulation, which is a violation of the statute, according to Smith's interpretation. Is this legal semantics or a misunderstanding of the intent of legislators?
"It has been turned over to me," Gilker said. "There are quite a few issues. What statutes do apply and if they apply? What authority does the county have to restrict their activities?"
She has no expected date for a decision yet. To date, there has been no formal request to stop the excavation.
"I'm paying taxes to be protected," Joe Pasenella, a Sharyn Road resident said. Pasenella and his neighbors want the project halted.
"They found good rock, it's worth a lot of money and they are going to continue," he said.
"How many years of blasting do we have to live with?" Harry Cronk, another Sharyn Road resident, asked.
Maybe five or six years more, Randall said.
"The stress of this whole thing is getting all of us down," Kay Weber, a Sharyn Road resident said. "We moved here to retire and we certainly don't want to move again and we are really happy with our house."
"It feels like it's a war," her granddaughter, Kaylin, wrote about the blasting.
Sharyn Road resident Bob Middleton shares a property boundary with the mining operation. He is scheduled to have a structural engineer assess the damage, seen and unseen, that he believes the blasting has caused. He first reported the damage on April 10. He has been asking the blasting contractor for the reports, and has had no response.
"I can't find out anything," he said in frustration. "They will not reveal anything."
He has been calling the blasting company and their insurance company. The aftershocks are running in his family as well.
"Louise is just depressed over this," he said about his wife. "It is very depressing, we have some damage inside who knows what that takes to fix."
"How do you fix your version of paradise?" the residents ask over and over. Neighbors talk about loosing a wooded hillside to a barren crater. Or riding along the Arizona Trail only to be tossed from a horse from an unexpected blast.
"I thought we had moved to heaven, this has changed our lifestyle," Robbie Wertin, a Bradshaw Road resident, said.
And her husband John may have summed it up the best, "It's easier to apologize than to ask permission," he said.
The grading/mining operation was started in 1999, without notification to the neighboring properties. After the residents began questioning the county and the companies involved, the county and the state began to examine the operation a bit closer, doling out permits after-the-fact.
"It started out a little excavation type deal, but now they have us classified as a mine," Randall said. "We have to obey all mining laws which we do anyway because we are a sand and gravel operation," he said.
Payson Concrete has operated the Tonto Quarry for 10 years outside of Star Valley. During that time they have been in compliance with all state mining regulations, Greg Becken, senior deputy mine inspector, said.
By placing the operation into the mining category, it placed the property in a different tax bracket and into the legal loophole.
"We are paying more for the property," Randall said. His bill is 18.9-percent this year, compared to the 16-percent he paid last year. "We try to do a good job and keep it clean," he said. "We are purchasing land going up Pine Creek to save from hauling in front of their houses (on Sharyn)."
He also pointed out that they have left a 600-foot buffer between the residents on Sharyn Road and the blasting site.
The excavation is in preparation for water storage tanks to be used by Brooke Utilities, Randall said. Brooke is the private water utility that services most of Pine-Strawberry. Brooke is working on a lease for the property and would eventually build large storage tanks on the site. All of this could take 10 or more years.