Biden admin halts major Ariz. project Trump OK’d

By Michael Doyle | 07/09/2021 01:30 PM EDT

The Fish and Wildlife Service has reversed itself on a controversial plan for a 28,000-home development, where groundwater pumping could affect the San Pedro River, pictured here. Aerial support provided by Lighthawk.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has reversed itself on a controversial plan for a 28,000-home development, where groundwater pumping could affect the San Pedro River, pictured here. Aerial support provided by Lighthawk. Ariel Wittenberg/E&E News

Development of a sprawling, politically charged Arizona housing development has been stopped, with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s newly revealed rescinding of a Trump administration decision.

The agency’s about-face caused the Army Corps of Engineers to suspend its dredge-and-fill permit for the 28,000-home The Villages at Vigneto project, according to court documents.

"The Trump administration told its donors that laws were irrelevant, business could do what it wanted and friends in high places could make anything happen," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in a statement last night. "We see today that the rule of law still applies in this country and I hope to see more of this going forward."

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This latest twist in a high-profile saga revolves around Fish and Wildlife’s 2017 "letter of concurrence," which essentially gave a thumbs-up to the 12,000-acre subdivision project and its accompanying environmental mitigation proposals.

The 2017 document "concurred that the Corps of Engineers’ granting of a Clean Water Act section 404 permit for the Villages at Vigneto Development was not likely to adversely affect threatened and endangered species or their critical habitat."

Last February, the Department of Justice notified a federal judge that "new officials within the United States Department of the Interior initiated a supervisory review" of FWS’s 2017 letter of concurrence.

"That review is now complete and, on June 28 … the Service withdrew its 2017 Letter of Concurrence, effective immediately," DOJ reported in a court filing Wednesday.

DOJ added that "after reviewing the Service’s withdrawal decision, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on July 1, 2021, suspended the Section 404 permit that [environmentalists] challenge in this case."

Fish and Wildlife did not elaborate on the findings of its review.

The developments in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona were reported yesterday by The Arizona Republic.

An unnamed Army Corps spokesperson told the newspaper that the permit suspension prohibits any work at the site, adding that "no discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States is authorized" for The Villages at Vigneto project.

"We do not believe the suspension is merited as no facts or circumstances have changed that would warrant such a suspension," a spokesperson for El Dorado Holdings, the project developer, told the newspaper. "The permit has been in place since 2006 through multiple administrations. The Army Corps of Engineers will reevaluate the circumstances surrounding the permit, as it has done before, and we are confident it will be reinstated again. We look forward to working with the Corps to address any questions that the agency may have."

The project has previously been shadowed by a whistleblower’s allegations of political influence (Greenwire, July 9, 2019).

Steve Spangle, a field supervisor in FWS’s Arizona Ecological Services Field Office, concluded in 2016 that the project’s need for groundwater would likely reduce flow in the San Pedro River and affect critical habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher and potentially other species.

A year later, Spangle reversed himself and said a fuller environmental review wasn’t needed.

"Mr. Spangle claims his reversal resulted from a phone call from a lawyer in the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of the Interior who advised him that ‘a high-level politico’ believed he had made the wrong decision and he would be ‘wise to reconsider it,’" Grijalva wrote in 2019.

Grijalva, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, added that "in his own words, Mr. Spangle said, ‘I got rolled’" by political appointees. Spangle retired in March 2018.

Lanny Davis, a Washington-based attorney for El Dorado Holdings, the project developer, said in 2019 that any suggestion of undue influence was unfounded.

In a 2019 statement, Davis said "the decision by the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to maintain El Dorado’s current Clean Water Act permit for the proposed residential development, the Villages at Vigneto, at Benson, Arizona was based on the law and the facts and nothing else."

Davis added that "there is not a single fact that supports the false premise that political lobbying or influence caused a change in environmental policy positions regarding the development of the Villages."

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