The Payson Town Council has again balked at changing the town’s general plan to allow a gravel mining operation at the southern entrance to town.
The council tabled the request for a general plan amendment to give applicant Forrest Gressley more time to work out the many questions raised by the project.
The council worried about the potential visual impact on what amounts to the gateway to Payson as well as what would happen on the property once the gravel pit has shut down and perhaps left a flat, potentially buildable piece of ground.
The town planning staff had recommended approval of the project, although the planning commission rejected the request for a general plan change on a 4-0 vote.
Moreover, the Tonto Apache Tribe said the mining operations would have a negative impact on tribal lands surrounding the site, including the casino and a second parcel immediately adjacent.
“When we think about mining operations, the constant soil disturbances, the likely need that blasting will occur and how it impacts existing properties and adjacent communities and businesses, the following considerations at a minimum come into play ... In conclusion, the negative impacts, just considering the categories of issues alone, would tend to far outweigh any benefits that a mining operation at the site in question would have on the community,” said a report by McClure Consulting, representing the tribe.
The report suggested the mining operation would make it harder for the tribe to potentially develop an affordable housing project on the adjacent land it owns. Payson has long suffered from a lack of workforce housing, with the average worker unable to afford the average home price. The post-pandemic real estate boom coupled with the conversion of mobile home parks into RV resorts has only worsened the problem.
Gressley wanted to set up a gravel mining operation on a hill next to the Payson Event Center to remove 150 tons of gravel per hour, once the operation was up and running. The mining operations would dig down some 35 feet on the 19.5-acre hillside.
However, he proposed eventually restoring the site to create a flat area on an otherwise hard-to-build hillside. The reclaimed site would then be suitable for other commercial or industrial development, he said.
The site at the corner of South McLane and the Beeline Highway sits next to the Payson Event Center, a large tract of land owned by the Tonto Apache Tribe, a mobile home park and a collection of industrial businesses along South McLane and West Phoenix Street.
The tribe’s opposition weighed heavily with Mayor Tom Morrissey. “I have heard from the tribe and their opposition to it. It troubles me. It troubles me deeply. It weighs on my decision.”
Councilor Scott Nossek said, “I want to commend the creative thinking that has gone into this. We want to see it developed. But it’s too speculative in nature. I would like to see a project or a partnership with a developer that is committed to this property instead of the hope that someone will develop it someday.”
Councilor Suzy Tubbs-Avakian objected to the last-minute flood of information about the project. “Personally, I would like to have more time to go through these documents. I like the idea of the product there and being able to have granite here to keep it local. I’m a big proponent for the voice of the people and I’ve had a lot of people contact me — a lot of people mentioned they’re against it.”
However, Councilor Jim Ferris thought it was a great idea and that the visual effects would be minimal due to the layout of the site.
“The view really isn’t going to be any different,” said Ferris, “You’re still looking up at it from Highway 87. Does that property have any value the way it sits now? Is the cost prohibitive to do anything? We’d have to be transporting aggregate from outside Payson (for future projects.) Will the project reduce the cost of other aggregate needs?”
“Absolutely,” said Gressley.
The planning and zoning staff also supported the proposal. The project would need a change in the general plan designation from commercial to industrial, plus a zone change. The town can normally change its general plan just once a year. But for properties smaller than 20 acres where there’s a special need, the council can change the plan more often.
Planning and Development Director Doni Wilbanks recommended approval, subject to certain conditions. The staff report noted that state law now requires mining operations to restore the land within three years of shutting down operations. Gressley plans to extract crushed granite for about five years.
“As development progresses, the need for aggregate operations will as well,” wrote Wilbanks, noting that the state requires consideration of aggregate operations as part of the general plan.
“The mining operations could potentially leave the site flatter with low-level hills; the parcels could act as a catalyst for future development at the cessation of their operations and site reclamation and re-vegetation.”
She said state law allows “minor amendments” to the general plan at any time if the request is a creative idea that will benefit the community that was unforeseen when the plan was adopted or when an undue hardship limits the use of the property, among other things.
Gressley maintained that the hilly terrain imposed an undue hardship, making the site undevelopable without taking advantage of the mining operation to create a flat area.
The conditions the planning department recommended included a detailed drainage plan showing what the site looks like when restoration is complete, a plan to re-vegetate the site, completion of improvement plans for ultimate use of the site for commercial development as well as street connections to West Phoenix Street.
However, the council remained unconvinced.
Councilor Jolynn Schinstock said, “The tribe has been a valuable partner and neighbor of ours. We appreciate all they do. I’m wondering if everything has to be done in stages — is there a potential where you initially start the affordable housing, then start the excavation for 12 acres on a housing development that the tribe takes over?”
Ferris thought that was a terrible idea. “To me, it doesn’t make sense to have housing next to a facility like an event center. Housing doesn’t seem to be that compatible with the nature of how things would develop there at all.”
Ferris moved to approve the general plan change. “The major objection seems to be visibility. I don’t see how visually this is going to be any serious impairment coming into town or in that area at all. I see positive things coming out of it. I just don’t see that as a scar. It’s going to look nicer than it does now.”
But Councilor Barbara Underwood remained dubious, suggesting that the applicant put up a development bond to ensure the property is reclaimed once he’s extracted all the crushed granite he can.
She then moved to amend Ferris’ motion to give the developer more time to answer the questions raised by the tribe and the council.
“Maybe there is some work to be done to see if there is some ground to work together. It is a very big project. It is a very big undertaking.”
Schinstock agreed. “I would like to see some greater community outreach and a performance bond. We’ve never seen industrial zoning go back to commercial. I’d like to see some greater detail on what happens when the five years are up.”
“I’m not sure what information he can give you that’s going to make a difference,” said Ferris.
But Tubbs-Avakian said support — or opposition — could emerge quickly.
“My thought is — remember not too long ago there was that group around town against the tiny homes on Tyler Parkway — they got 400 signatures, lickity split. I would assume you have an email base or something, just a survey, your employees. We could end up with not just a junk yard, but some kind of recycle yard.”
The motion to table the meeting to a future meeting passed on a 5-2 vote.