Some Star Valley residents were outraged over what they perceived as the Town of Payson's latest attempt to take their water.
On Tuesday evening, following an executive session, the Payson Town Council approved a letter of assurance that water obtained from a well site at the northeast end of Star Valley will be accepted for the development of a 37-acre parcel behind Payson Town Hall and other properties within town limits. The developer is Scottsdale-based Terra-Payson 40, LLC.
Star Valley residents, including Chris and Karen Benjamin, owners of the Sky Run RV Resort adjoining the well site, were not allowed to speak after the council returned from executive session.
"We got a copy of the letter and then they (the council) turned around and walked out," Karen Benjamin said. "They said, ‘The meeting is adjourned,' and they left while we were reading this letter."
The Benjamins, who have lived in Star Valley since 1980, previously submitted a detailed letter outlining their objections to what they call "water farming." In it they claim that their wells were adversely affected during test pumping at the new site.
"When we first developed the Sky Run RV Resort, we were required by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to provide proof of an adequate water supply for the 26 housing units here at our park," the Benjamins wrote. "We are perplexed that the town would require ERUs for a development in Payson while taking away water, which has already been dedicated and established for 10 years to our development in Star Valley."
The letter of assurance approved by the council and signed by Public Works Director Buzz Walker assured the developer, Terra-Payson 40 LLC, that water pumped from the well site and piped to the town's water system will meet town water requirements for "future projects" with certain conditions.
The Benjamins claimed both Walker and Mayor Barbara Brewer previously assured them the town had no interest in acquiring water from the well site adjoining their property.
That's not quite right, according to Brewer.
"They're hearing what they want to hear," she said. "They're saying that Buzz said, ‘We're not interested in that water at all.' That's not true. Why would we be trying to get all these permits for 10 years to drill out there?"
Brewer was referring to the town's ongoing quest to get permission from the U.S. Forest Service to drill exploratory wells in the Diamond Rim area northeast of Star Valley. A group of nearby residents calling itself the Diamond Star Action Coalition has vehemently opposed the town's proposal.
"We didn't say we're not interested," Brewer said. "We're not interested if it impacts anybody and they can't be satisfied."
The letter of assurance, the mayor explained, requires the developer to prove that the wells do not impact other wells in Star Valley. She said that the Benjamin's claim that their wells were affected were based on their own tests and not "professional tests."
While the Benjamins and other concerned Star Valley residents were not allowed to speak to the council, they were given copies of the letter of assurance.
"The reason we wanted to make sure the letter went to everybody is that we want them to know we're interested in trying to protect them too," Brewer said. "The (developer) would have to take care of everybody first, and we're not going to do anything that is against Star Valley (residents) or the Forest Service...."
Benjamin said she's not buying it.
"They're telling the developer, ‘You be the bad guy. You get the water so it's ready to trade to the town at no cost.'"
The mayor also claimed that any speculation about whether water from the site will end up in the town's supply was premature.
"They're jumping the gun," she said. "Right now, we haven't made agreements with anybody and that (letter of assurance) is just a draft."
Brewer said many ideas are being discussed for the 37-acre site known as the Buckmaster property, which is currently zoned high-density residential.
"(The developer has) several different plans," she said. "They were talking about some homes, multi-family homes, apartments, affordable low-income -- all kinds of things."
Brewer would like to see a new county complex built on the site, and she said Terra-Payson 40 is willing to consider the idea.
"My vision is to make that the county complex with maybe homes around it," she said. "I envision us having something like the Prescott courthouse square that is close to residential so people could walk to work and to events on the weekend."
Local developer and school board member G. Michael Horton, a principal in Terra-Payson 40, provided additional insight.
"We have a number of ideas," Horton said. "If it were the best of all possible worlds, we'd like to see a town center there with some of the government facilities consolidated, then integrate that with residential, commercial and offices so we truly had a destination spot in Payson."
Benjamin said the process is much farther along than the mayor admits.
"They already purchased (the well site and three) wells are drilled," she said. "The main well is cased at 1,000 feet."
Terra-Payson 40 has other properties in Payson it wants to develop, Brewer noted, including a site behind Home Depot at Highway 87 and Houston Mesa Road.
In fact, Horton sold Home Depot 15 acres for its new store and hopes to build single family homes on 13 adjacent acres.
The mayor insists the town is proceeding deliberately and acting responsibly.
"I think it's a positive in that we're looking out for the citizens of Payson by having the developers take care of all the potential problems," she said. "Once it's done it'll get rid of all those dead trees, it'll pave Manzanita, Evergreen and Easy (streets). It'll be nice for the people that live in that area."
"Positive" is not a word Benjamin uses when talking about water beneath Star Valley ending up in Payson.
"That's our most precious resource, and for people to just take and not give back anything is really very sad," she said. What's going to happen to Star Valley?"
The answer to that question is, "Nothing," according to Horton, who believes his 1,000-foot well reaches a different portion of the aquifer than that tapped by the Benjamins' 275-foot well.
"There's water available in Star Valley that is not being used," he said. "Our well facilities aren't hurting or damaging anybody."