November 15, 2006 - Pinal County may be heading for a trainwreck of enviromentalists, farmers and home builders opposed to a proposed rail yard just north of the Pima County line.

The State Land Department wants the designation of more than 10,000 acres of land between Picacho Peak and Red Rock changed from "natural resource, development sensitive" to "urban, industrial." This would allow the land department to sell almost 1,900 acres to Union Pacific Railroad, which plans to build a switching yard across the highway from Picacho Peak State Park.

Pinal County supervisors will decide the issue on Nov. 29.

With a 5-3 vote, the county planning and zoning commission on Oct. 26 recommended denial of the land department's request.

Citizens have formed a group to lobby against the potential rail yard. The collective, which includes a landowner, a resort owner and a consultant, calls its struggle a "David and Goliath battle" and wants Union Pacific to find another location for its switching yard. The group set up a Web site to promote its cause:

The proposed "hump" yard would contain 36 tracks on 585 acres, almost twice the size of Tucson's 24-track, 300-acre rail yard at 22nd Street. A Union Pacific yard in Phoenix consists of just 20 tracks on 140 acres. The Tucson yard stretches about two miles in length and a quarter-mile in width. The proposed yard in Pinal would stretch a little longer, Union Pacific officials said.

"We just think it's a bad place," said Marana Councilman Herb Kai, who leases from the state much of the land that Union Pacific wants. "Union Pacific is a big elephant that sits on anyone and doesn't care who they're sitting on."

Kai, who lives in Marana and owns or leases thousands of acres of farmland in Pima and Pinal counties, raises pecan trees and small grains on his Pinal farm. He has leased the 2,000 acres since 1995. If Union Pacific buys the land, Kai would receive a sum of money for improvements he made to the property, valued at about $150,000 for the entire acreage.

Of course, Union Pacific would never bid on the land if supervisors reject the requested zoning change, railroad spokesman Mark Davis said, adding that the proposed switching yard would provide a big boost for the company's expansion between Los Angeles and El Paso.

"We're looking at ways to increase sufficiency in order to continue to serve Tucson companies and the international market between Tucson and Nogales," Davis said. "Both yards in Tucson and Phoenix are at capacity and they are landlocked."

Union Pacific operates 32,400 miles of track in 23 states west of the Mississippi River. With 8,000 locomotives and 107,000 freight cars, the railroad is the largest in the United States.

Many freights traveling through Tucson hang a left at Casa Grande and head for Los Angeles. Others roll east to Kansas City, Chicago and other points.

As its name implies, a switching yard is the setting for the changing of cars on a train. If a 100 car train rolls into a 36-track yard, the switching occurs on about 20 tracks. Say the 100 car train becomes three trains, then one train might go to Los Angeles, one to Kansas City and one to El Paso.

Workers break apart trains and reassemble them based not only on location but by type of load. Freights carry through Tucson a variety of products, including lumber, cement, aggregate, auto parts, farming supplies, coal and chemicals.

Some opponents are concerned about train mishaps and chemical spills while others have concerns about diesel engines left idle 24 hours a day.

"Diesel residue will form on all surrounding plant life, destroying the vegetation and animals that depend on the plant life to live," states the Web site of the opposition group, which also includes Picacho Peak RV Resort Co-owner Michael Wirth.

"This rail yard will destroy our business and the thousands of travelers that visit the area," Wirth said.

If approved, the yard will sit just northeast of an underway 4,000-home development at Red Rock and another potentially huge subdivision once called La Osa that's now off the drawing board but still under consideration for development. The Picacho Mountains, which figure prominently in the Tohono O'odham creation story, would hover over the yard to the east. Across the highway to the west sets Picacho Peak State Park and its wildflowers, trails and campgrounds.

State parks officials seem a little steamed that "no one has ever approached the (state parks board) about these pending changes to the land uses around Picacho Peak State Park," State Parks Executive Director Kenneth Trevous wrote to Pinal County Supervisor Lioinel Ruiz. "The proposed switching and maintenance facility is clearly not compatible with a State landmark park."

The state parks board last year spent $265,000 and acquired 10 acres to protect the viewshed of Picacho Peak.

Three Pinal supervisors hold the switching yard's fate. State Land's requested land use change already has met two rejections at the hands of a citizens committee and the planning commission.

Pinal Supervisor David Snider refused to comment, citing the fact that the proposed rail yard does not fall in his district. Supervisor Sandie Smith did not return phone calls.

"I've kind of stayed away from (the issue)," Ruiz said, adding that he wants to get "more definitive" details about the rail yard before making his decision. "If anything else, it'd be a good job center and we look for that."

The yard will bring about 290 jobs and an annual payroll of more than $20 million to southern Pinal. Of course, some of those jobs could come in the form of transfers from the Tucson yard, stripping Pima County of jobs.

Environmentalists have identified the area between Red Rock and Picacho as a wildlife corridor, a safe place for animals to cross the interstate. Picaho Peak State Park Manager Robert Young has concerns about the negative impact the yard would have on night-time stargazing, a big draw for the campers who visit the park.

"I think it's a bad idea," said Christina McVie, executive director of Desert Watch, a non-profit activist corporation consisting of scientists, landowners, conservationists and government agencies. "I'm not against a switching yard, but they could put it closer to Casa Grande."

Union Pacific vowed to work with state and federal agencies on envrionmental issues. The company would use all intermodal trains, noted Union Pacific's spokesman. An intermodal train carries both shipping containers and highway semi-trailers.

"One intermodal train takes about 200 trucks off the road," Davis said. "It's more fuel efficient."

How the other 8,100 acres of the 10,000 will be used is unknown. Officials said they will reveal more of those plans if supervisors approve the current land use request.

In Marana, town officials have taken no official position on the proposed rail yard. The yard would have no effect on the planned Villages of Tortolita, a 7,000-home development which could require Marana to annex into Pinal, said Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat.

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