CASCABEL — A proposed residential community would mean big business for Benson but the people living north along the San Pedro River in Cascabelwant none of it.
The Villages at Vigneto, sited just south of Benson, would potentially boost the population of the small town of 5,000 people to over 70,000 in the space of 20 to 25 years. The development has come under fire for the potential damage it could cause to the water resources of the area, chiefly to the San Pedro River and the habitats that rely on it. For the people living north of the city like Anna Lands and Alex Binford-Walsh, it means so much more than that.
“We are really going to get squeezed,” said Lands. “The people from there are going to want to come here.”
The area around Cascabel is very rural, with views of the east side of the Rincon Mountains and the rustle of cottonwood trees that demarcate the flow of the San Pedro, the last undammed river in the state of Arizona.
That river flow is spotty at best – only flowing continuously after a heavy rain during monsoon season. It’s famous for being home to hundreds of species of birds and animals. It serves as a sort of highway for migratory birds traveling north or south, as well as a watering point for movements east and west.
“Compared to what this valley used to be like, sure we are protected but this whole place has been destroyed,” Binford-Walsh said. “We lost the jaguars, the ocelots the coatimundis, the otters, the beavers, the muskrats, the grizzly bears, the mountain lions, the wolves.”
Whether or not the development would actually damage the river system near Cascabel is an open question. Hydrologic studies (some of which were done by University of Arizona hydrologists) point to the upper and lower basins being separate. Regardless, it is the river that comes first and foremost in regards to issues people have with the development.
“There’s so much traffic around the area,” Binford-Walsh said. “The only way to have a healthy river is to have a whole healthy river, you know? That’s the only way we will have the jaguar.”
Currently, the road to Cascabel becomes dirt after a couple dozen miles out from Benson. It is a popular location for using off-road vehicles, with clubs across Southern Arizona visiting the spot.
“The best part of a dirt road is that nobody cuts through here, Binford-Walsh said. “They’d want to pave the road eventually. Almost definitely.”
While Binford-Walsh and Lands are some of the more vocal members of the Cascabel community on the issue, there have been residents at Benson city council meetings who spoke on the issue.
“I can’t speak for everyone in Cascabel,” Lands said. “I think it’s fair to say that there’s a fair number of people who don’t think about the development. Others may think ‘Oh it’s a terrible thing,’ but it’s not their way to get actively involved.”
Benson has approved the master plan for the Villages at Vigneto, but the project has been halted by the Army Corps of Engineers in regards to the water permit.
“You’ve got a wide spectrum of people in the middle and that’s what you have to take into consideration whenever you’re talking to everyone, because you’re not going to be able to please everyone,” Benson City Councilman David Lambert said.
This development would be a great boon to the city of Benson, which doubles in population during the winter months when snowbirds stay in the many recreational vehicles parks around town. The Villages at Vigneto would catapult Benson to the largest city in Cochise County.
“The benefits are the growth of the area,” Lambert said. “Benson has been kind of stalemated for several years on growth. Our tax base will start to grow, rapidly.”
Those outside of the benefits, like Lands and Binford-Walsh, don’t see that growth as a plus – as it can come with unintended consequences.
“One of the beautiful things, one of the excellent things about this area is the dark night sky,” Lands said. “It’s already threatened. The motto around here is [The Villages at Vigneto] are a done deal until it gets stopped.”
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Erik Kolsrud is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org