- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - Conservation groups are suing to block the development of a massive master-planned community in southern Arizona in the hopes of protecting the last major free-flowing river in the Southwest.

The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and five other groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against a pair of federal agencies for allowing El Dorado Holdings Inc. to fill in desert washes without adequately studying the development’s effect on the environment.

Their attorney said his clients want to ensure the San Pedro River and the wildlife it supports are protected.

“They can’t just plow ahead and allow this to go through without considering the effect it’s going to have,” said Chris Eaton, attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm.

The river, which flows north from Mexico through southeastern Arizona until its confluence with the Gila River, supports a cottonwood-willow forest and is an important corridor for migratory birds. It also is home to endangered species including the ocelot, the yellow-billed cuckoo and the northern Mexican garter snake.

El Dorado Holdings Inc. has proposed a 28,000-home master-planned community called the Villages at Vigneto near Benson, with an 18-hole golf course, parks and hiking trails. The development would be about 2 miles from the San Pedro River.

El Dorado Holdings Inc. - founded by Diamondbacks co-owner Mike Ingram - is not a party to the lawsuit and plans to move forward with the development, but it has not yet set a date to break ground, said Mike Reinbold, a partner at the company.

“We are in compliance with all local, state and federal laws,” he said.

The lawsuit says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Fish and Wildlife Service failed to look at how the community would affect the environment under the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. Both agencies declined to comment.

The Army Corps of Engineers previously issued a permit in the same spot to a different master-planned community called Whetstone Ranch in 2006. El Dorado bought the land in 2014, and the permit along with it.

Eaton, the Earthjustice lawyer, said the environmental groups have a responsibility to ensure the development does not adversely affect the river’s endangered species, vegetation and watershed.

“We’re going after both agencies, and the duty to consult is put on both agencies. But it’s up to the Army Corps to make the first effort,” he said. “But it’s also up to the Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure the consultation is meaningful.”

Sandy Bahr, director of Arizona’s Sierra Club chapter, said the development could destroy vital habitat for many imperiled species dependent upon the river.

“We’ve dried up a number of other rivers in our state, and the San Pedro is already a threatened river,” Bahr said. “We don’t want the next development. That will be the nail of the coffin in the San Pedro.”

A second lawsuit is underway in Cochise County, along a different section of the San Pedro, over a developer’s access to groundwater rights that could affect the river near the city of Sierra Vista.


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