Saturday, October 8, 2011

Protest Update

There has been a controversy raging for the past few months about whether to permit an in-situ copper mine within the boundaries of the master planned community where I live.

The subject of a previous blog post in August -- about our protest of Governor Jan Brewer's supportive visit in favor of the mine -- this has continued to be the focal point of unrest in the community. The company proposing to mine the copper -- Curis, a subsidiary of a major Canadian corporation -- has petitioned the Land and Zoning Commission and the Town Council of Florence, Az to be granted an overlay to the master plan which calls for residential use of the land in question. They are requesting "temporary" (15-30 years) use of the land for mining after which it could, in their estimation, become residential once again.

Many residents, including a large portion of the new planned community of Anthem Merrill Ranch which would be most impacted by the presence of the mine, are very much opposed to the project. There are no guarantees that our water supply will not be destroyed when the copper mining drills through and near the community's aquafer with acids to extract the copper. Home values, already hard hit by recession, are plunging further in anticipation of the mine. Those residents thinking of selling and fleeing to a place where the water supply is not compromised may have even more difficulty selling their homes. Many residents have retired to this place, sinking their life savings into comfortable homes they envisioned enjoying for the rest of their lives.

But the controversy goes far beyond simply a citizens vs. the corporation struggle.  For there are many good, fair-minded citizens in Florence who are in favor of the mine.  Many of them live in downtown Florence, a town dating back to 1866 with a rich history and families who have inhabited the town for generations. They are devastated to see the effects of economic recession on their already struggling town. In the past few months, two of the three most popular restaurants in town have been lost: one to fire, one to the economic realities that many citizens just can't afford to eat out anymore. Businesses have shuttered along Main Street. Citizens desperately need jobs. Young people are leaving Florence in search of a better future. The gorgeous new master planned community of Anthem Merrill Ranch, which was supposed to bring new prosperity to the town, has stalled in the face of the real estate crash. So far, only 1600 of the 9,000 projected homes have been built. Build-out of the community is years away. So what's the harm, many are asking, in prospering from a mining operation in the interim? Curis is promising that 147 jobs will come with the project. Of course, there are no guarantees that any or all of those will go to Florence residents.

The situation here in Florence mirrors the national economic crisis in so many ways: corporate greed, the desperate need for jobs, declining communities, environmental pollution, divisions within based on conflicting priorities -- those so desperate for jobs that possible pollution is less onerous than economic decline, those who sank life savings into new homes who have nowhere to go if the water supply is poisoned, short term vs. long term gains.

Lately, there have been some ugly sentiments expressed in letters to editor of the local newspaper with long-term town residents criticizing the newer, somewhat more affluent residents of the Anthem Merrill Ranch area of Florence for selfishness, saying that they contributed nothing to the Florence community and Merrill Ranch residents protesting in print that they contribute greatly to community outreach projects and charities, financially and through volunteer efforts, local businesses, and, not so incidentally, in high property taxes. The rancor has been sudden and heartfelt.

The controversial copper mine took protest to new levels of endurance challenges this week with the Land and Zoning Commission hearing on the matter at Florence Town Hall on Thursday night.

Citizens showed up en masse for the hearing: filling the council chambers, the town hall's lobby and the parking lot by 4 p.m., well before the 5:30 start of the procedures. People favoring the mine -- primarily for the prospect of jobs -- wore green tags. People against the mine wore red shirts, sweaters or jackets.

                             Anti-mine citizen with custom made red shirt waits in line

                     Red shirted Merrill Ranch citizens lining up for the hearing                    

From personal perspectives, there is a lot to be said for each side. For people who have spent a lifetime in Florence, the distress over the town's economic challenges is palpable. And for those who sank their life savings into homes in the new planned community (that, unlike downtown Florence, is downstream from the mining site and thus more in danger of water pollution) -- the fear of being stuck in an area with a poisoned water supply is equally strong.

Those of us in red tend to be less trusting of corporate promises -- to build soccer fields and tree lined streets for future development (when studies show that no in-situ mining site has ever been restored to a condition that would support residential use and no in-situ mining site has ever been built in such close proximity to an existing residential community.)

          Twins Gracie and Josiah,  7, sit with their mom outside hearing room                

There were sizable groups representing both sides. Earlier in the evening, we mostly avoided each other, gathering in different areas of the lobby and parking lot. There was mostly silence among those clustered outside the hearing room. About four hours into the hearing, there was one brief scuffle with police when pro-mine citizens became afraid they wouldn't all get their say, despite reassurances from organizers and officials that they would be allowed their three minutes each to speak.

Speeches -- from lawyers and advocates and ordinary citizens -- were so numerous that the event went on for an unprecedented 8.5 hours -- starting at 5:30 p.m. and winding up at 2:05 a.m.

Well into the night, there was an overflow crowd in hearing room, in lobby of Town Hall, and spilling out into the parking lot where speakers were set up. It wasn't until 2 a.m. that the hearing was completed with a 3-1 vote against the overlay and a 2-2 split vote on the mining land use. The recommendations of the committee, with an unfavorable decision in terms of overlaying the master plan and a puzzling tie vote on the mine itself, will be sent on to the Florence Town Council, which makes the final decision on November 7.

Many, including children, sat attentively through proceedings to the end. "I've never stayed up so late," said 7-year-old Josiah. "It isn't fun anymore. I'm homesick. But this is important. The copper project has to be stopped. Clean water and a safe environment are important to me and to everyone. So I need to be here."

                                    Jacob, 3 weeks, the youngest red shirt protestor      

Hour after hour, citizens spoke passionately, sometimes tearfully: about their love for the town of Florence and the surrounding communities, about their fear that contamination of the water supply would make this place uninhabitable, about their fears that unless some jobs came to Florence, the town they love would slip into further decline and young people would have to move elsewhere for employment.

                                         Josiah, with a new sign, near midnight

And, as the hours passed, the citizens of Florence, the green tags and red shirts alike, were gradually united in a spirit of shared adversity and sheer exhaustion.

As midnight neared, a green-tagged woman I had never met before approached me, a shawl extended: "Aren't you cold, honey?" she asked, indicating my shorts and T-shirt.  I told her that I was fine, that hot flashes were useful in situations like this. We both laughed and I thanked her. And we both smiled. And it occurred to me that, whatever the final decision, we're a community and will endure.


14 comments:

  1. What an interesting post. Personally, I hope the red shirt protestors prevail. I'm happy to see so many passionate, involved citizens. That's important for a community, as long as the differences of opinion don't degenerate into personal attacks and mud slinging. I'm anxious to hear how this turns out.

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  2. What a heart rending struggle you all are in. I truly love how you closed it- no matter what happens, we're all in this together and we will get through it. Very wise outlook, indeed!

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  3. What a heart rending struggle you all are in. I truly love how you ended it, though. We ARE all in this together, no matter the outcome, and we will get through it. Very wise outlook, indeed!

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  4. Your posting today must make any of us who read it sit up straight and think. And as I do so, I discover that because of your balanced writing, I can so easily understand both the green and the red side of this issue.

    I see no perfect solution. In fact, no solution at all. And I'm left wondering why anyone would want to be in government today and try to find answers to the monumental questions that face us.

    Your ending, as all three commentators above have said, does present the yarn-end sticking out of the tangled skein. That is, we must begin to view ourselves as a community gathered in Oneness.

    But how we do that in the midst of these large issues, I don't know.
    Surely trying to be nonjudgmental and working hard to listen--really listen--and thus hear what's behind the spoken words helps. And perhaps that's why that long eight-hour meeting ended with all of you feeling camaraderie for one another.

    I have a lovely piece of glass on which I've pasted a card given to me by a friend in the convent. It says, "To understand is to stand under, which is to look up to, which is a good way to understand." That saying had helped me all these years.

    Peace. I look forward to your posting more about this situation.

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  5. So frightening that your future is out of your hands. I hope they will decide to protect your environment and look for other ways to secure employment for your community.

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  6. There really is no clear cut winner here. It just depends on what your concerns are as to the color of shirt. You did an excellent job showing both sides.This will be a tough decision for the town council.
    Josiah definitely impressed me staying the course.
    Wishing you the best.
    Arkansas Patti

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  7. Good coverage of a local event that mirrors national environmental and economic issues perfectly. I've heard it argued that as many people could be put to work on environmentally friendly projects as there could be by further development of environmentally compromising projects, but ore isn't impressed. It is where it is. In truth, none of our economic or environmental issues are as simple as we'd wish.

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  8. Stay united and keep protesting! They'll count on people getting tired and forgetting after a few months. The trick is to be vigilant and organized for the next round of protests, letter writing and media blitz.

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  9. These disputes are never easy and certainly not easily settled. We have them too, of course, and in my experience, most residents instantly say 'no' to any proposed new development. It's part of human nature to want the status quo to stay; sure, people want jobs and an economic upturn, but they don't want to pay for it by rearranging their own backyard.

    It's the nature of the animal.

    I don't know the ins and outs of your particular situation but I'd like to say that your article is reasoned and calm. You have my best wishes.

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  10. This reminds me that often it's not about right and wrong, but right vs. right. Both side vehemently assured of their own personal rightness. Passion on both sides. Please keep us informed regarding the outcome. With the fairness you exude in your writing, I wonder if, along with all the other things you've done career wise, if you have ever been a negotiator?
    I've been away for a bit and I'm glad to be back and reading your posts.

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  11. Thanks so much to all for your kind comments! It is a very difficult and painful time in this community. Better, I spent quite a few years as a psychotherapist and did a LOT of marriage counseling where, often, it's a matter of right vs. right and finding a way to bring them back to what brought them together in the first place. (There were exceptions, of course!) Here, it really helped to spend time with a lot of people who felt differently and were as passionate and sincere in their concerns as we red shirts were in ours. I'll definitely do an update after the November 7 decision.

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  12. You have written a wonderful post. I so appreciate you position and your commitment to present the situation in a balanced way. This is so difficult when so much is a stake for both sides. Personally I don't think an outcome that poisons the water is desirable -- though it it is not certain that that would happen -- still the risk would be considerable. It sounds as though people on both sides understand the dilemma -- one would like to think that somehow, somewhere there is a compromise solution ...

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  13. This is a fascinating post, Kathy -- well stated on both sides of the issue, your point of view clear, but with great thought and consideration. I can imagine particularly in a state like Arizona where every drop of water counts, the issues are tremendous. I wish you all well with your upcoming election.

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  14. This is an interesting post. I don't know enough about the situation to make an educated guess of what color I would have worn to the meeting. BUt, what struck me about this post was how involved your community is-- A LOT of people turned out for this meeting. That is not something you see very often. I take my hat off to you all and hope it all comes to a smart conclusion.
    jj

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