A last minute reprieve has stopped the scheduled closure of Houston Mesa Road at Second Crossing, at least for the time being.
"(Tonto National Forest Supervisor Karl Siderits) called me about 2:00 and said he made the decision to postpone the start date of the contract until he has a chance to look at it and see if there are any other options," Payson Ranger District Lands and Minerals Staff Officer Rod Byers said Friday afternoon.
Pat Johnson, president of the Whispering Pines Neighborhood Association and unofficial spokesperson for the affected residents, was happy.
"I'm just relieved," Johnson said. "I had spent some time this afternoon writing a letter about safety concerns that I was hoping the paper would publish on Tuesday -- advising residents what to have in their vehicles with them so they would at least be safe if they got trapped for whatever reason."
Although U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi has been trying to get the project stopped, Byers said he had no idea at this point if Renzi's efforts had any impact on the decision. But Renzi, who met with 93 residents of the affected communities at Second Crossing Monday morning, took credit for stopping the closure.
"Since meeting with the homeowners recently, my office has been working aggressively with the Forest Service here and in Washington, D.C. to provide a resolution to this critical issue," Renzi said.As a result, the road will remain open and provide more time for the community to resolve this matter."
Until Siderits' decision, everything was in place to close the road at midnight Sunday. Had that happened, the only access to and from Whispering Pines and other communities east of the crossing would have been the Control Road (FR64) -- a dirt road that can be dangerous, especially when wet or covered with snow.
According to Byers, the closure is necessary to replace the current drive-through crossing with a vented ford -- a higher crossing with culverts in it. Byers had met with the contractor on Thursday to go over final details, and bright orange signs were installed along Houston Mesa Road on Thursday alerting motorists to the closures.
"It will be closed down at the Cold Springs junction, which is about halfway between Second Crossing and Third Crossing, and at Water Wheel on the other end," Byers said on Thursday. The two closures points are a half mile apart "because there isn't any other reasonable place to turn traffic around," according to Byers.
According to Pat Johnson, president of the Whispering Pines Neighborhood Association and unofficial spokesperson for the affected residents, Renzi voiced several concerns:
"He was concerned about the children traveling on the bus across 10 miles of Control Road. He was concerned about their safety in the winter. He was concerned about our elderly residents who might need emergency medical care."
Byers said Renzi subsequently contacted the U.S. Forest Service office in Washington and wrote a letter to local forest officials.
"I sent a briefing paper up the line to our folks in Albuquerque and Washington, and they're briefing Renzi, I guess," Byers said.
Byers said he doesn't mind politicians getting involved just before the election.
"It's government by the people," he said. "Folks have the right if they're upset about something to chase those ends out to see if they can come up with a different outcome."
Johnson says the Forest Service can do great things when it wants to or has to.
"When there is a fire up here, these people are capable of bringing in equipment that can move mountains, and I think they could do the same thing here," she said.
Besides Whispering Pines, affected communities include Bonita Creek, Rim Trail, Cowan Ranch, Verde Glen and Cold Springs Ranch.