Road Closure Raises Hackles Of Houston Mesa Residents

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Residents of Whispering Pines and other communities east of Second Crossing are angry about a plan to close Houston Mesa Road at the crossing for six weeks beginning Oct. 18.

If the Payson Ranger District's plan is implemented, the only access to and from those communities will be the Control Road (FR64) -- a dirt road that can be dangerous, especially when wet or covered with snow.

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Residents of Whispering Pines are unhappy about a plan to close the Houston Mesa Road for six weeks to construct a new bridge at the Second Crossing.

Rod Byers, lands and minerals staff officer for the Payson Ranger District, says the project has to be done.

"That old apron is deteriorating, and we're going to replace it with what we call a vented ford -- that's just a crossing with culverts in it," he said.

The length of the closure also is unavoidable, Byers said.

"They have to epoxy these culverts to the old bedding and epoxy takes time to cure," he said. "They've got tons of rebar to put in there. But the biggest thing is that 192 cubic yards is a great big chunk of concrete that takes time to cure. There is no way we can affect the physics."

Residents of Whispering Pines, Bonita Creek, Rim Trail, Cowan Ranch, Verde Glen and Cold Springs Ranch aren't disputing the physics of the project, but they do believe a temporary crossing could be put up for the duration of construction.

Pat Johnson, president of the Whispering Pines Neighborhood Association, spoke on behalf of the residents.

"We think before they start the work and do what they're doing to the residents that they find a way to keep the road accessible," Johnson said.

She estimates that more than 500 people live in the affected communities. Besides the inconvenience of an extra 40-minute drive into Payson, where Johnson and other residents work, she claims (the closure) is a public safety issue.

"Not only will it affect ambulance response time, but it effectively cuts off our mutual aid partners in Beaver Valley and Mesa del (Caballo) so that in the event of a chimney fire or structure fire, which is a likely occurrence in October, November and December, the only mutual aid partners that can come to our aid would be Tonto Village and Pine," Johnson said. "That would increase response time tremendously."

Residents also are concerned about school children being bussed to school on the Control Road, and the elderly who depend on deliveries of oxygen and home nursing services. They note the impact the closure will have on other services they depend on, including the postal service, United Parcel and Federal Express, trash haulers; and propane companies.

They claim the current crossing is in good shape, but Byers disagrees.

"Those old aprons in the bottom of the creek have visibly deteriorated in the last couple of years, just because they're old and they get a lot of freezing and thawing action because they're exposed to water constantly," he said. "They're going to be turning into gravel if we don't do something to fix it."

Residents also complain that the only notice they have received so far came in the form of three 8 1/2-by-11-inch memos placed on a bulletin board and at two other locations, all in Whispering Pines.

"If you live in Bonita Creek, what occasion would you have to stop and look at the mailboxes in Whispering Pines?" Johnson asked. "There have been no public hearings."

To make their opposition known, residents hung 30 laminated signs on trees near Second Crossing, notifying their neighbors of the closure and asking them to call Johnson to help stop it. Most of the signs, Johnson complains, have been removed.

While he says he is sympathetic to the plight of the residents, Byers said the district has notified the school district, ambulance company and other essential service providers, and that a temporary crossing is impossible.

"If we could've put a detour in there we would have planned it in the first place, but that's why we've worked with the county," he said. "They're going to be blading the Control Road every day during that six-week period."

He also dismisses the charges that residents weren't adequately notified, and says the signs the residents posted on trees are illegal.

"I don't know who took them down, but quite frankly they don't have any legal authority to be doing that," he said. "But it's no big deal because in a couple of weeks we'll be starting the project and they can go take their own signs down."

Residents are increasing their efforts. A new 4-by-6-foot sign has been mounted on private land at the intersection of Houston Mesa Road and Scott Road in Whispering Pines, and a petition drive to stop the project is under way.

"We'll be down at Second Crossing Saturday asking people to sign our petition," Johnson said.

Residents have also contacted Gov. Janet Napolitano's office as well as the offices of other elected officials. Gila County Supervisor Ron Christensen says he has doubts about the project in the first place.

"I saw the plans for the very first time (Wednesday) morning, and one of the things I am concerned about is the width of it," Christensen said. "If they are going to rebuild the crossing, it should be done to meet our minimum standards at the very least, and what I saw yesterday did not do that. (The curve just above the second crossing) is a very difficult corner to begin with."

Christensen says he has asked the two parties to meet on Oct. 6 to try to resolve their differences.

"I just told them they had to meet," Christensen said.

Johnson says nobody has told her about such a meeting, and Byers says it's a moot point anyway.

"If we could have accommodated them we would have, but now their signs aren't going to make a bit of difference."

Residents who want more information or want to volunteer to help can call Johnson at (928) 474-6702 or e-mail her at howdy@npgcable.com.

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