Yelling and finger-pointing seldom intrudes on Payson Town Council meetings, at least not the type that gets the police chief up out of his seat.
But a plot of land east of Payson nestled in a “pristine” canyon, off a creek with towering pines and granite boulders is creating a firestorm of controversy.
Thursday night, the town council listened quietly for half an hour as resident after resident took the podium in town hall and spoke out against plans to turn the 70-acre Fox Farm into a light industrial area for an ammunition factory and yet to be named facilities.
And while all but one of the speakers opposed the plans, the council voted unanimously to go ahead with annexation. Incumbents Ed Blair, Su Connell, Fred Carpenter and Mayor Kenny Evans all face re-election challenges from candidates who have criticized the plan.
The vote marked the first in a six-month series of hearings and votes necessary to approve an industrial park at the end of Granite Dells Road.
On Aug. 5, the Star Valley council de-annexed 760 acres from its southwest boundary so Payson could annex both the private land and the public land that controls access to the Fox Farm. The town could now annex the Fox Farm and re-zone the area from residential to industrial in the course of the next six months. This will pave the way for The Rim Club Trust to sell the Fox Farm to DCK, a development firm working with Advanced Tactical Armament Concept (ATAC) of Payson, which wants to build a 100,000-square-foot campus.
One resident said she’s worried about the lack of transparency and how the town can protect the area if the industrial park is built. She wondered why Star Valley had moved so quickly — and why she could find no mention of the plan in Payson’s General Plan, on the ballot for approval. Furthermore, she wondered whether DCK has bigger, undisclosed plans for the land.
“There has got to be something bigger than this simple 80 acres ammunition campus,” she said. “It really, truly does not make any financial sense for this giant developer to come into Payson, Ariz. and again spend millions of dollars to simply move a medium size business/slash ammunition campus onto an 80-acre parcel.”
ATAC founders, who asked town officials to help find land for its expansion a year ago, listened restlessly to the criticism.
Residents Russell and Mary Goddard said they are not against growth, but against the proposed project in Granite Dells. Mary said she worries the chemicals used in ammunition manufacturing could be hazardous to the riparian area and are “cancer causing.”
“You are wrong,” Jeff Antich, with ATAC, blurted out. ATAC manufactures HPR Ammunition.
Donovan Christian said while he is pro HPR, he is also pro nature and frequently rides and hikes the trails around Granite Dells. “We have a couple of HPR guys here and I hope that they understand that lack of support for the Fox Farm annexation is not the same as lack of support for HPR,” he said. “We want HPR, but at what cost?”
Only after everyone was done talking did Jim Antich, founder and managing partner of ATAC take the podium. Blair asked Antich to explain who would ultimately own the Fox Farm if everything goes through. Antich said ATAC would sign a 20-year lease with DCK.
Antich explained ATAC only looked at the Fox Farm after exhausting all other options.
Still, many residents insisted ATAC should expand at the airport.
Visibly flustered, Antich threw his hands up, holding a map of the town in one hand. “This is a zoning map of Payson. There have been a lot of comments by politicians that there is plenty of industrial zoning in Payson. Here you go, let’s see it. You are wrong, there is not.”
He said many other towns and states have approached him, trying to get him to move the business. “We had a $200 million loan fund from the state of Texas at 3.5 percent interest, probably $4 million in just, here, please come. Tax abatements for 10 years and free land at some places,” Antich said. “But I don’t want to leave here. Business wise, money wise, greed wise, why wouldn’t I go there? … I want to be here, we want to be here, our employees want us to be here.”
Blair asked if OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) knows that one of ATAC’s employees lost his hand, in reference to an earlier comment by one of the critics of the annexation.
“You people are frigging dreaming, nobody lost their hand,” he said facing the crowd, adding the man only lost the tip of his finger.
Evans instructed Antich to face the microphone and address the council.
“Just these ignorant things that are going, around its friggin’, well ignorance is not stupidity,” Antich said, drawing boos from some in the crowd.
Evans banged his gavel.
“Ignorance is lack of knowledge,” Antich continued.
“This guy is not helping your case,” one man shouted from the back of the room.
“No, not at all,” a woman said.
“You know it is what it is,” Antich said.
Blair asked Antich to explain what an ammunition campus is and what type of ammunition they will manufacture.
“Yah, I mean I have even seen that we are going to use depleted uranium, I am like where is this stuff coming from,” Antich said.
ATAC currently puts together small arms ammunition, 50 caliber and less. The firm sells mostly to law enforcement agencies.
The campus will fit into the landscape and is simply a cluster of buildings.
Evans said the Fox Farm project has not been rushed into. He looked for months to find a suitable property to keep ATAC in town.
“This is not an effort that was engaged in casually or without thought,” he said.
Councilor John Wilson pointed out the council was not yet re-zoning the Fox Farm, only annexing land from Star Valley.
Councilor Fred Carpenter said he doesn’t know anything more than residents about the plans for Fox Farm.
“I am in the dark as many of you are ... but before I would ever vote to support something like that (an ammunition factory) I would have to have a lot more detail, but that doesn’t mean I would be against the annexation tonight,” he said.
After the council unanimously approved the annexation, several residents and Antich continued to speak out. Police Chief Don Engler stood and watched as the crowd filed out and then left to monitor them in the parking lot.