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 p.m. (Friday) 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."
Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Ed Armenta has scheduled a public meeting for 10 a.m. Thursday at Second Crossing.
"He said he'll have his engineers there, and (Legislative Liaison) Marty Martinez of Gila County and his group of people who support the road closure," Johnson said.
Armenta could not be reached for comment.
Although Rep. Rick Renzi has been trying to get the project stopped, Byers said he had no idea at this point whether 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, Roy Haught Excavating, on Thursday to go over final details, and bright orange signs were installed along Houston Mesa Road on Thursday alerting motorists to the closures.
Although Houston Mesa Road is on Forest Service land, the county maintains it.
"Funding on that road can come from either source, and it just so happened we had some dollars available to replace that one crossing so we're doing it," Byers said.
"But the county has to maintain that crossing regardless, and the old one was getting real tough to maintain."
Besides Whispering Pines, communities that will be affected if the road is closed at Second Crossing include Bonita Creek, Rim Trail, Cowan Ranch, Verde Glen, and Cold Springs Ranch.