After several hours of presentations and public comments, the Marana Planning Commission voted 3-2 Wednesday night to recommend adoption of a rezoning request that would allow a regional landfill within a 590-acre parcel currently west of the town limits.

The planning commission now sends the request from DKL Holdings Inc., to the town council.

Planning commissioners Gary Pound and Billy Schisler voted for the rezone; commissioners Jeffrey Adragna and Michael Wiles voted against it. Chairman Norman Fogel broke the tie with an affirmative vote. Commissioners Tina Wood and Marcia Jakab were not in attendance.

A crowd packed the Marana Town Council chambers Wednesday night, hearing lengthy presentations from Michael Racy, representing the applicant DKL Holdings, and a stream of comments against the proposal from area residents, many of whom brought signs of protest to the session.

"This is strictly a vote on a change in zoning, that's all," Pound said before the final vote. "It's the first step in a long, long process. This is very limited in scope."

DKL Holdings seeks to establish the Marana Regional Landfill Specific Plan, to allow "a regional landfill and material recovery operations as well as other industrial uses," on 430 acres of agricultural ground now owned by Marana Vice Mayor Herb Kai. It sits north of Avra Valley Road and west of Silverbell Roads. An annexation proposal is moving forward simultaneously with the rezoning effort.

Town staff had recommended the zone change from "rural development" to the landfill specific plan be approved. Brian Varney, a member of the town's planning staff, reported 40 written comments had been received in favor of the proposal, and 14 opposed.

When Robyn Meissner took the microphone Wednesday, she asked people in the audience who opposed the landfill to stand. Dozens did so. "I guess it's more than 14," she said.

"You are not here tonight approving a municipal solid waste facility," Racy told the commission. "Tonight, all we're asking for is a recommendation to move forward with a land use change." The landfill permitting process, with numerous local, state and federal agencies, lies ahead, he said.

Residents expressed concerns with traffic, health, water, visual impacts, the effect of a landfill on nearby property values, noise, dust, blowing trash, floodplain proximity, the long-term stability of liners within the landfill, and more. They wondered if the landfill development would adversely affect commercial development at and around Marana Regional Airport.

Repeatedly, speakers urged the planning commission to slow down its consideration.

"Please slow down," Meissner said. "We do believe it's going too fast."

"Those who suggest this is rushed, and hurriedly prepared, I could not disagree more," Racy said.

"You can restore confidence with these people and deny" the proposal "if for no other reason than the arrogance of the process itself," said Ron Asta, a consultant working with Herb Kai's brother, John, who is opposed to the project, as well as nearby residents. Asta previously worked to gain rezoning for developers of the Durham Wash landfill, a competing proposal in southern Pinal County.

Later, Racy said "our competition would desperately like to slow this process down." He said the Durham Wash project has not been able to attract investment, that it is predicated upon anticipated growth in Eloy and Casa Grande, and that it is too far from Northwest Tucson. He pointed out that Durham Wash proponents indicated in their plan they expected the facility to be "owned partially or totally by Pima County," which has not provided funding for that project.

Several assailed Kai and Racy. "What is it about conflict of interest and cronyism you do not get?" Marana resident Phyllis Farenga asked the planning commission.

Silverbell West resident Melissa Rohlik said Kai has a conflict of interest. "It is my belief that this has been put on the fast track because of Mr. Kai's position within the town council," Rohlik said. Citing Kai's positions on previous landfill proposals, as well as opposition to a Union Pacific switching yard, Rohlik asked, "Where does Herb Kai really stand? If this dump is really it and he is going to personally profit, which he is, he should have resigned his seat."

Resident Kim Smith suggested a lake, rather than a landfill, would be better economically. Herb Kai could "go from a zero to a hero with just a little common sense. I know I'd like to go to Kai Lake."

"How do we assure toxic and liquid wastes are not coming into the dump … excuse me, landfill," Pound said. "I grew up when it was a dump."

The audience clapped. "It's still a dump," one person said.

Water was a frequent topic.

"You get one shot at it, and what if," Commissioner Adragna said. "Who's going to be responsible, and who's going to satisfy the damages? Who's going to be accountable?"

"The permitting process deals with that exact issue," Racy said. "There are dozens of chances to monitor, detect and remediate before anything gets into the aquifer."

He pointed out DKL would be required to post an escalating bond with the state to cover damages, and it would put a $20 million insurance policy in place for any remediation. "Federal and state law requires the operator is responsible," Racy said. "This has been thought about by the experts in this field for many, many years."

Arlan Colton, representing the Pima County Planning Department, outlined concerns the county has with the proposal, among them flooding possibilities, the fact groundwater levels beneath the site are rising, effects upon Avra Valley Road, sources of the waste stream, visual impacts and the significance of a specific plan amendment of this scale. "This is a major amendment," Colton said. "You get one bite at this apple."

Tim Bolton, representing the Arizona State Land Department, requested a continuance of the proposal for 45 days so the state agency could "fully evaluate and assess the impacts this proposal may have" on 2,800 acres of state land around the site.

Racy said DKL and its representatives would be meeting with the state land department in early March.

Racy urged the board to decide on the request Wednesday. A continuance "continues the emotion and misinformation," he said. A favorable recommendation would "get the experts that permit this into the process," he argued.

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