Less than a week before the Pima Board of Supervisors was to vote on whether or not it would endorse a controversial greenhouse project for a Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) exception for Monsanto, the company announced they were withdrawing its FTZ proposal with the county.
Monsanto announced the decision last week, though representatives said they are moving forward with several commitments to the area. The board of supervisors was set to vote this week on whether or not to recommend the 7-acre greenhouse project with the federal government. If granted, the trade zone would have given the company a lowered property tax rate, as per Arizona state law. Under the agreement the property tax rate would drop from 15 percent to 5 percent.
Monsanto had already reached agreements with the Marana Unified School District (MUSD) and Pima County Joint Technical Education Districts (JTED), though Pima Community College declined to reach an agreement.
In 2016, Monsanto purchased the 115-acre site just outside of Marana, with plans of building a state of the art, fully enclosed greenhouse for “crossing” corn plants.
Crossing involves taking pollen from one plant and putting it on another in an attempt to get desired characteristics from both plants. The company hopes to grow between 400,000 to 500,000 corn plants annually, and maintains all of it will be inside the greenhouse. Monsanto says there are no current plans to grow corn outside the greenhouse.
In anticipation of the vote, the county held a series of public meetings, at which opposition towards the project was overwhelming, despite the efforts of Monsanto officials to try and alleviate fears of pesticide use and other environmental concerns.
“We appreciate the opportunities over the past three-and-a-half months to meet and hear from others in Arizona’s agricultural community who support all types farming and to share information about who we are and our new greenhouse project,” said Amanda McClerren, Monsanto project strategy lead.
Monsanto and the county looked at a few different options. The first would have the county offer the letter of no objection in exchange for some concession by the county. A second proposal was a Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement that would have the county collect the full amount of taxes, but refund a portion to the company if they met certain investment benchmarks, including the hiring of at least 50 workers at an average salary of $44,000 per year, and invest at least $90 million in the facility.
Although Monsanto has backed out of the PILOT and will not pursue the letter of no objection from the county, it will still abide by some of the concessions made to the county, including the voluntary reporting to the county of restricted use pesticide usage at the greenhouse.
“We are now dedicated, more than ever, to investing in this community,” McClerren said.
One aspect of the agreement with the county that is no longer in place is the recently created Agricultural Science Advisory Commission. The idea was that the commission could monitor the greenhouse and evaluate the effectiveness of the project, as well as report on any adverse effects of the site on the area.
Instead Monsanto has a plan to create a community advisory panel, which they say will be comprised of “members of the area to advise us on opportunities to engage with the community.”
In their release about the Pima County move, Monsanto said they still planned on making a $500,000 payment to the Marana 2340 Foundation as a payment in lieu of taxes, but that is now on hold as the school district is assessing the situation.
“As a result of Monsanto Company’s recent announcement to no longer pursue a proposal for payment in lieu of taxes agreement with Pima County, we have decided at this time to postpone a similar proposal the company has before the Marana Unified School District Governing Board,” said Tamara Crawley, district spokesperson. “If the opportunity presents in the future, we would consider science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educational options that will provide our students with the skills necessary for success in the future.”
The property tax exemption would have saved Monsanto roughly $375,000 annually over the next 10 years.
“We are now dedicated, more than ever, to investing in this community, regardless of the Foreign Trade Zone Payment in Lieu of Taxes Agreement proposal,” McClerren said. “As discussions with Pima County have advanced, it is clear that further investments in workforce development are necessary for Monsanto and other businesses to grow successfully in the community.”
Despite the concessions and the pledge to be a “good neighbor,” most of those who opposed the project remain skeptical. While some of the fears over the green house itself have subsided, opponents to the project still believe that more of the155 acres will be utilized outside of the sealed greenhouse and the proximity to area schools, specifically Marana High School is a huge concern.
“They are still a chemical corporation masquerading as a seed company,” said Tom Snyder, who has spoken out against the project at the public meetings. “Once they come out of that greenhouse, which I feel they will, regardless of what they have said, then those kids at Marana High School will be on the firing line of one of the most toxic pollutant corporations this country has ever known.”
Snyder points to lawsuits against Monsanto in several communities including San Diego, Long Beach, Oakland, Portland, Spokane and Seattle. Washington state is also in litigation with the company a class action suit in California over the use of glyphosate.
Others feel that the dropping of proposal with the county was to avoid another public meeting where those opposed to Monsanto would be out in force. Despite the move, several groups will still be working to prevent the company from moving to Pima County.
“After Monsanto dropped its bid for a tax break, concerned citizens are not giving up and are more determined than ever to keep Monsanto out,” said GMO AZ Free in a press release. “The Pima County community wants healthy communities and are standing up to protect our environment, our children and our future.”
Despite the protests and the dropping the proposal, there is nothing stopping Monsanto from building the facility, which they say they still intend to do.