Tiny town outside Grand Canyon outlines its future

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- A tiny town that credits its existence to the Grand Canyon has put together a 10-year wish list of sorts for recreation, public services, transportation and development.

But it's what is not in Tusayan's general plan that has drawn the criticism of its neighbors - a water source for growth.

Gone are the days when collecting rain water and snow melt met the needs of farmers and ranchers just outside the canyon's South Rim, with water hauling meeting additional demands. The hundreds of residents of Tusayan now rely on wells, but officials at the Grand Canyon, American Indian tribes and environmentalists say additional pumping could harm seeps and springs in the area.

The Italian company proposing the majority of growth in Tusayan hasn't said exactly what water source it will use to support a dude ranch, high-end boutiques, five-star hotels, hundreds of homes and a high-density shopping area off the highway that takes most visitors to the Grand Canyon. Stilo Development Group USA spokesman Andy Jacobs said Friday that those plans won't come to full fruition for years or even decades.

"We certainly understand that water is a scarce resource in that area, so we don't think anybody is overly concerned about where we're getting our water," he said. "It's an important issue. We're doing due diligence to try to do the right thing on water. The criticism may be overly harsh when we haven't made a decision yet."

The Tusayan Planning and Zoning Commission closed out the public comment period on the general plan this week. In its comments, the National Park Service predicted that Tusayan's water use would nearly quadruple over the next decade, from 175 acre-feet per year to 681 acre-feet per year, under development cited in the plan. That includes 142 acres of commercial development, 1,874 multi-family dwellings, 543 single-family dwellings and 300 dormitories.

The Grand Canyon's chief of resource management, Martha Hahn, said along with an unidentified water resource and development that doesn't mesh with the surrounding environment, the park is concerned about an increase of visitors that would further strain its resources.

"That's not to say we don't want more visitors, but this concentration of visitors and increase is not really well thought out," she said. "The question is `why would you want that.' And the answer is for economic gain. Are you really the gateway for visitation to the park or are you providing for personal gain?"

Tusayan became one of Arizona's smallest towns in 2010 under a state law that gives communities of at least 500 people that are within 10 miles of a national park or monument the chance to incorporate. The driving force behind the change in law was a lack of housing for a largely transient population.

The companies that run the hotels and feed the tourists own the homes in the town that is landlocked by the Kaibab National Forest and Grand Canyon National Park.

Town manager Will Wright said the general plan isn't meant to go into detail about water sources. The town isn't sure where developers will get water either, but Wright said development won't be allowed to move forward without an assurance that it won't severely impact the Grand Canyon.

"We're here to provide necessary services for those wanting to visit the Grand Canyon," he said. "If the Grand Canyon were damaged in any way, we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot."

Jacobs said Stilo prefers not to drill wells but hasn't ruled out that possibility. He said developers also have talked about transporting Colorado River water through a coal slurry line that ran from the Black Mesa Mine near Kayenta on the Navajo Nation to the shuttered Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev., and or piping it in. He said developers are in talks with water rights holders.

As for the massive development, the Town Council recently approved an amendment to the agreement with Stilo that requires the town to apply for access to Stilo's property nestled in the forest. Stilo is approaching a deadline to turn over 20 acres of land to the town for housing.

The amendments came after Stilo defaulted on the original agreement.

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