landowners may rethink anti-freeway stance
The Gila River Indian Community remains officially opposed to putting the proposed South Mountain Freeway on its land, but there is a sign of hope for Ahwatukee Foothills residents who don't want the noisy road along Pecos Road.
A Gila River resident who represents about 500 landowners near the freeway route said it's possible the community might reconsider, despite learning a sacred mountain in the western range of the South Mountains could be gouged out with a canyon up to 200 feet down and 800 feet wide.
"That mountain is sacred, and they don't want it cut out," said Nat Percharo, chairman of a group that represents owners of about 1,300 acres large group of Gila River landowners. The group's land is closest to Ahwatukee and the most likely site for a freeway route on the reservation. "There is a strong possibility that they may talk about it and reconsider," Percharo said.
The Arizona Department of Transportation released a preliminary draft of the freeway's footprint last week that showed houses and businesses in the proposed highway's path along Pecos Road.
One complication affecting what the Gila River Indian Community will do is the Nov. 8 election. Voters will select a new governor and lieutenant governor.
The community's council several years ago adopted a resolution forbidding not only a freeway on the reservation but even a study of one because of opposition from residents in the district most affected by the freeway. That district, District 6, generally runs from about Interstate 10 to a little west of 51st Avenue. That district includes many of the landowners that Percharo represents.
Gila nation Gov. Richard Narcia, who lost his bid for re-election in the primary, doubts the community council will change its mind.
"I would be very surprised if they changed their position on the freeway," he said. "The people in the area, the elders, want the land preserved pretty much the way it is, as pristine desert."
Lt. Gov. Mary Thomas, one of two candidates for governor, said: "We're still looking at that resolution drawn up in District 6. That is a stickler. We seldom challenge anything that has been done formally unless we have good reason."
She said residents object to putting the freeway on the reservation because it would hurt their peace and serenity on the sparsely populated community. "It would take up a lot of lands we are trying to save for future generations," she said.
But she also said the community will strongly oppose plans to cut into the mountain. Gila River officials also have said there are many cultural sites, possibly gravesites, in reservation areas around the mountain.
"There's got to be another way," she said, suggesting as an alternate, raising the freeway on pillars to loop around the mountain, similar to elevated freeways in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, the only alternative to cutting into the mountain is putting the freeway on the reservation or not building it at all, said Matt Burdick, spokesman for ADOT.
He said the agency will continue to talk to the Gila River community's leadership to see if they would agree to letting them study possible alignments on their lands.
Burdick said there is still a year or two at the most to study a reservation corridor if the community allows it. The agency has been talking to the community for four years already.
ADOT is scheduled to release a draft report on the proposed Pecos Road path in another year. But if the Gila nation did allow the freeway, the ADOT study could be extended for a year or two.
"We would have to know definitely sometime next year, and possibly after the draft report is issued (in the fall of 2006) as to whether there are any options," he said.
Meanwhile, Burdick advises Ahwatukee Foothills residents to be patient. "Don't go putting your house on the market (if you live in the proposed path of the freeway.) We have a long way to go. We have to first come to the conclusion that are we building something or aren't we," he said.
Burdick also said he doesn't anticipate a repeat of a decades long struggle the agency had in the northeast Valley with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community over whether to locate the Pima Freeway in Scottsdale or the Salt River Reservation.
Because negotiations weren't going well, the agency began buying houses in Scottsdale for the freeway and then at almost the last minute, reached an agreement with the community. The Salt River community and its members received about $347 million.
But the agency in those days didn't have to do a federal environmental assessment study like it has to today, he said, Burdick said. With the South Mountain Freeway, he said no more land will be purchased until after all the studies and public meetings have been done and the alignment is definitely established.
The nine-mile stretch of the Pima Freeway through the Salt River Reservation continues to give the Salt River community windfalls because of all the retail and business centers that have sprung up along the freeway.