Environmentalists opposed to a massive housing development planned near Benson had a victory this week when an Arizona judge ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to produce documents to uncover whether political influence changed the agency's stance on a critical permit.
To build the Villages at Vigneto, a 28,000 home development planned near Benson, developers need a permit to allow them to fill washes and drainages in the San Pedro River watershed. For years the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said such a permit required a thorough analysis of the impacts to endangered species and the river under the Endangered Species Act. The development is estimated to increase Benson's current water use by a factor of 10.
But that changed in 2017, said Stu Gillespie, an attorney with Earthjustice representing environmental groups who are suing over the project.
"All of a sudden the Trump administration came into office and the Fish and Wildlife Service abruptly reversed course, and said it's fine, we don't need the analysis, the development can go forward. It turns out that abrupt reversal was due to improper political influence," he said.
After retiring, Former Fish and Wildlife Service Field Supervisor Steve Spangle told reporters he had been instructed by the Interior Department to change stance on the decision -- granting developers the green light.
Last week, an Arizona District Court judge found that Spangle's public admission of improper political interference was sufficiently serious that he granted the environmental group's request, ordering the Fish and Wildlife Service to produce internal documents related to the decision. It also allows the plaintiffs to depose witnesses, like Spangle, to gather further evidence of political interference.
The agency has 30 days to provide the documents. The motion was brought by the Tucson Audubon Society, Maricopa Audubon Society, Cascabel Conservation Association, Lower San Pedro Watershed Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, and Sierra Club as part of litigation against the Army Corps of Engineers and Fish and Wildlife Service over the Villages at Vigneto project.