When Chris Moses moved to Benson as a child in the late 1970s, it was nothing but a dot on a map with a population of 4,000 people.
Despite previous visions of economic prosperity with the opening of Kartchner Caverns State Park and a failed housing development proposal in 2008, the city hasn’t grown much since.
Soon, however, this small town could experience growing pains.
Moses, like many other Benson residents would admit, would like to see changes to the lagging local economy, but are comfortable and take pride in living in their small town..
“I can tell you up front, there’s no way they are going to build 28,000 homes here,” says Moses, who is the on-air personality for Benson radio station KAVV-FM. “The city comes up with these ideas and try to make it more than a dot on a map.”
Developers of a 28,000-home Benson subdivision are finalizing plans to send to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. The project, first proposed by El Dorado Holdings, Inc. in April 2015, would introduce residential neighborhoods and businesses to the city, increasing the population of 5,000 to nearly 70,000 people over a span of 20 years.
“Most people here want it to stay a small community,” Moses said, “There are not enough jobs or schools to accommodate that many people. We are skeptical about it.”
The development would occupy 12,000 acres of land on Whetstone Ranch, just southwest of Downtown Benson on State Route 90.
Satisfying School and Safety Needs
One of the largest concerns surrounding the development is whether the existing community will be able to keep up with satisfying the schooling and emergency service needs that a 70,000 person influx would require.
Benson City Councilman David Lambert thinks that the time span of construction during the development will allow the city enough time to address these needs,
“The influx is a great concern, although this development is approximately twenty years to completion. As the time passes, and homes are being built and occupied the City of Benson will adjust accordingly to grow with the development.”
The City already has a plan to address the number of students. Lambert continued to say, “Approximately 95% of the property is in the St. David School District. The City of Benson has been in constant communication with the St. David School Administration in regards to initial transportation and future onsite schools being built.”
Lambert also stated that temporary fire and police stations will be placed in housing areas once construction progresses. Later to be replaced by permanent structures to satisfy the number of homes built.
Paul Esparza, director of the Cochise County Planning, Zoning, and Building Commission supports the project, pointing to potential jobs and sales tax revenue for the town.
Esparza wants the new development integrated into the already existing community. He suggests that the roughly two miles of open space between the city and the development be connected by a road.
Despite concerns from some Benson residents, Esparza is confident that following private community meetings, the overall impression of the development will be positive. “The development could ultimately be very prosperous for the local economy and bring thousands of residents and jobs to the area,” he said.
Esparza wants the proposed housing to be more affordable. “What they are trying to do is attract mid to high-income individuals, but a lot of the existing community members of Benson and even the contractor’s employees won’t be able to afford it,” he said.
A number of environmental and developmental concerns raised by environmental groups must be addressed before moving forward.
Cochise County planning delayed the project due to a push from developers to approve city-related matters such as drainage plans and water-conservation measures. Cochise County officials said that those timelines should be set by the city, not the developer.
The city has the final say on the project, and no date has been set for that decision. According to City Councilman Lambert, “The developers are working diligently on the development agreement and the Final Community Master plan. The developer is working on both of these documents currently.”
Nathan Delfs 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