Marana's first significant attempt to annex its way into Pinal County has gone down the tubes over a town businessman's concern about how it would affect a treated sewer sludge company he owns.
The Marana Town Council, at its May 18 meeting, held a public hearing on its plan to annex 2,830 acres of farm land that includes a small portion of Pinal County east of the Pinal Airpark on the west side of Interstate 10.
The bulk of the property, which includes an agricultural area known as the LDS Farm owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is in Pima County stretching south from Pinal County to Hardin Road east of Aguirre Road.
But other property owners within the annexation area, Marana Vice Mayor Herb Kai and his brother John Kai, opposed the request for the annexation just days later and the town now says the annexation will be withdrawn.
John Kai is owner and president of Avra-Gro, a company that holds a contract with Pima County to remove the treated sludge from the county's wastewater treatment plants. Avra-Gro in turn sells the treated sludge, also known as biosolids, to farmers in the area for use on non-food crops.
The annexation was withdrawn because of the town's more restrictive regulations governing the application of sewer sludge used to fertilize farm lands, John Kai said.
"I have a contract with the county and I have to think about how this affects the county. It's better just to withdraw the annexation right now," John Kai said in an interview after the meeting.
Herb Kai said he is staying out of the issue to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
"That's my brother's company. If down the road the annexation is considered again, I'll stay out of it. I won't vote on it," Herb Kai said in a phone interview last week.
The council's public annexation hearing did not require a vote.
Pima County Assessor's Office records show Herb Kai co-owns land in the annexation area, but Arizona Corporation Commission records indicate he does not hold any financial interest in Avra-Gro.
Marana has more stringent regulations on the application of sewer sludge than Pima County, requiring that the sludge be injected into the ground and not be used near flood zones and water courses like the Santa Cruz River which runs through the southeast portion of the land that was being considered for annexation.
Pima County allows the easier, less expensive method of spraying the sludge on to farm fields.
Although there has never been any conclusive link between the use of sewage sludge and human illness, national environmental groups such as the Sierra Club are calling for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct further studies and enact stricter regulation of their use.
Environmentalists express concern over the presence of heavy metals and other contaminates in sewage sludge and airborne contamination when it's sprayed on fields.
Advocates for the use of the sludge say it provides an inexpensive fertilizer for farmers and point to a National Academy of Science study that found it to be safe and effective even when sprayed on fields.
Marana Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said the need to annex along the county line and into Pinal County was being driven by a need to give the town a measure of control over the population explosion expected to occur north of Marana across the county line and possibly reap the benefits of future industrial development around the airpark.
"With all the development being planned in that area we have to be able to have some kind of control over transportation and other infrastructure issues," Reuwsaat said.
A Scottsdale developer, George Johnson, alarmed Marana and Pima County last year when he proposed building up to 67,073 homes in a sprawling development in Pinal County just north of Marana.
Marana and Pima County administrators joined environmentalists and military officials from nearby training bases in voicing concerns over the scale of the La Osa project.
Johnson offered to reduce the project by half, but it was rejected last year by the Pinal County Zoning Commission.
Johnson has since sold 16,000 acres of the desert and ranch land to the Tempe-based Wolfswinkel Group. The company has yet to say whether they plan to develop the land.
According to Pinal County officials, more than 253,000 homes on more than 70,000 acres of land were working their way through the planning process in Pinal County at the time La Osa was being considered.
And while Marana might not be able to annex the military installations or privately-held corporations like the aircraft restoration company Evergreen Air that are based at Pinal Airpark, the surrounding area may be ripe for other industrial development, Reuwsaat said.
At the May 18 meeting, only one property owner objected to the annexation plan and no one spoke in favor of it.
Juan Valles, speaking as a representative of a long-established Marana family, said they didn't want to be annexed.
"We don't want to become part of Marana. What we've always considered Marana to be here," Valles said, referring to rural North Marana. "Not Ina Road and not Pinal Airpark. Please leave us out of this. We think you just have a case of the greedy-gimmees."
Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton, Jr. directed town staff members to meet with Valles and provide him with information about previous annexations and Marana's annexation policies.
"It would be nice to show him that we haven't been greedy land-grabbers in a long time," Sutton said.