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Home / Focus / Real Estate & Construction March 2007 / Strains on a 50-year partnership: Town of Maricopa, Ak-Chin tribe, struggle with

Strains on a 50-year partnership: Town of Maricopa, Ak-Chin tribe, struggle with

Last January, Ak-Chin Indian Community Chairman Delia Carlyle had to heat water in a crock pot in her microwave before a breakfast meeting with Governor Napolitano. During the Valley’s coldest weather in two decades, Southwest Gas couldn’t deliver enough natural gas to the Maricopa/Ak-Chin area, causing havoc to more than 4,900 homes. “It’s hard to get enough hot water out of your microwave to wash your face!” exclaimed Carlyle.
Ak-Chin, a 780-member tribe, and its 24,000-acre reservation is dealing with what Carlyle calls “hyper growth.” Growth is also starting to strain a 50-year-old partnership that was once touted as a model of Indian and non-Indian cooperation between the tribe and its neighbor, Maricopa.
Tribe feels pressure from new residents
Maricopa was once a sleepy hamlet of 1,500 farmers and families nestled in its own little valley. The tiny town, 40 miles south of Phoenix, and its tribal neighbor often seemed like one community. Indian, Hispanic and white residents worked, played, learned and grieved together; they aided their neighbors during flood, fire or drought with no thought of compensation. The close relationship enjoyed between Maricopa and Ak-Chin was showcased as a model of cooperation between a tribe and its bordering town at state economic development conferences.
Ak-Chin is one of four O’odham tribes in Arizona. They consider themselves the descendants of the ancient Hohokam peoples, and base their culture on the Him Dak, or “way of life.” Their way includes agriculture; indeed, the O’odham lands were once the breadbasket of Arizona.
Ak-Chin’s leaders are aiming to restore that reputation. After settling their water rights with the federal government in 1984, Ak-Chin reestablished its farm tradition. Maricopa Mayor Kelly Anderson proudly notes that his family and other old farm families lent Ak Chin farmers equipment to get started. Today, Ak-Chin Farms’ 14,000 acres produce alfalfa, barley, cotton, potatoes, pecans, watermelon and other crops.
But along with the promise of new development and new economic opportunities, the new residents also brought big problems. Over the past two years, Maricopa’s population has tripled to more than 25,000. A special 2005 census found that the city has grown at an average rate of 5.4 percent a month — one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. The latest estimates: Maricopa will grow to 179,000 in just 20 years.
Dozens if not hundreds of master-planned developments have sprung up, or are in the process of rising from the desert floor, creating what Maricopa Unified School District Superintendent John Flores calls an “oasis.” Terry Kingery, who heads the Maricopa Chamber of Commerce, lives in Rancho El Dorado, the oldest of the new developments and says “I love it there!”
The new crop of homes is spelling the end of Maricopa as the old residents know it. “There is no more farm town,” says Kathy Hall, editor of the Maricopa Monitor, one of three new publications that have sprung up in the wake of development.
“One way in, one way out”
There’s just one way to reach Maricopa and Ak-Chin from the north — S.R. 347, also known as Maricopa Road or by its newest moniker, the John Wayne Parkway. In fact, a mantra of area residents is “One way in, one way out.” The road meanders through 12 miles of the Gila River Indian Community to reach Maricopa. It’s easy to tell where Gila River ends and Maricopa begins — a solid wall of homes marches along the reservation border.
S.R. 347 was widened and improved in 1989, thanks to former Sen. Alan Stephens, now chief of staff for the governor. But the highway is more likely to resemble I-10 during the rush hour than a four-lane road; most of the new people work in the South and East Valley, creating familiar traffic snarls. Just one fender-bender can tie up traffic for hours. The highway’s mortality rate on has soared. Carlyle notes that there have been more crashes in the past year than over the previous five years.
Residents also have to contend with the railroad bisecting the town. When the gates descend across the crossing, traffic grinds to a halt. Even the governor’s not immune to waiting for a freight train to pass. Kingery says that one time, Governor Napolitano’s motorcade was stuck on the wrong side of the crossing for more than an hour.
And what would happen during a disaster, such as a hazardous substance spill from a train derailment? Carlyle shudders at the thought. “All those people would be trying to flee on the one route out of town,” she says.
“There’s a little ‘us versus them’ between the new and old people,” Hall says. And there’s a sense that many new people think it’s difficult to get anything done on new road construction because of tribal sovereignty and the Arizona Department of Transportation, she notes.
Ak-Chin left out of the loop, says chairman
That observation rankles Carlyle. “We don’t oppose development,” she says as she looks out over the site of a new development across the street from the tribal administration building. “We welcome it. We just want to have a seat at the table when they’re discussing projects so our concerns will be addressed.”
Ak-Chin’s biggest headache is the same as Maricopa’s — transportation. But the tribe feels left out of discussions focused on easing the area’s transit woes. One example is Maricopa’s Small Area Transportation Study. The plan calls for widening of Peters and Nall Road from its current two lanes to a six-lane arterial road to link White and Parker Road, a main thoroughfare and S.R. 347. The tribe’s current administrative complex and its newest housing development are right on Peters and Nall Road.
“The city of Maricopa [also] has a separate study referred to as the ‘Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway Project Assessment,’” says Sandra Shade, special assistant to the Ak-Chin Tribal Council and a transportation expert. “As a part of that study, their consultants had shown a proposed realignment of Murphy Road, (the road to the tribe’s industrial park) to tie in with the Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway.”
The city’s plan would have restricted access to Ak-Chin’s industrial park. Also, because apparently Ak-Chin was not consulted beforehand, “The Bureau of Indian Affairs would need to be consulted, since it is their road,” says Shade. Currently, the tribe is using its own money to improve the road.
Also, White and Parker Road has been proposed as a connector between Interstates 8 and 10 and large portions of Peters and Nall Road lay on reservation lands, and negotiations have yet to be entered into over extending easements. In fact, a major problem for the tribe is the lack of clarity concerning roadway easements. “We need to determine where all these easements are,” says Carlyle. “Nobody has determined where exactly they are for years.”
The tribe also fields many complaints over agriculture. “We frequently get calls complaining about the smells coming from the dairy farm,” says Carlyle. “But the dairy farm’s not ours.” The new, mostly urban residents also complain about crop dusting, only to find that Ak-Chin is committed to farming. “One developer even offered to buy us a new tractor if we agreed to cease aerial dusting,” says Carlyle.
The state steps in to help
After the tribe and the city complained about developers’ lack of disclosure about area farms, the Arizona Department of Real Estate met with stakeholders and issued a policy statement requiring area developers to fully disclose farm information within a 5-mile radius of the reservation. “Some developers were not happy with the change,” says Mary Utley, public information officer with the ADRE, “but it’s important to respect tribal boundaries.”
Cultural concerns also cast a pall over new developments. Global Water, the local off-reservation water company needed to construct a new wastewater treatment plant, just a few feet off of the tribe’s farm fields. The plant’s initial plans called for emergency discharges of wastewater through three of the four washes running across the reservation.
“Those washes contain many medicinal and basket plants,” says Carlyle. “There had to be another way besides treated wastewater running through out backyards. Our elders wouldn’t stand for it and neither would we.”
So the tribe engaged the water company in discussions. “We took 15 elders to Maricopa for a public hearing on the wastewater plan,” says Carlyle. “It was real emotional.” After numerous meetings between Ak-Chin and Global Water, the two parties reached an amicable resolution prohibiting any wastewater discharge.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality also had a hand in addressing the issue. “We worked really closely with Ak-Chin to coordinate but also assure that off-reservation actions won’t affect them during the application process,” says ADEQ Director Steve Owens. “There was a lot of back and forth discussions but in the end they worked it all out very well.”
ADEQ’s policy states that tribes must be considered in any process involving ADEQ applications, says Owens. “The tribe had to be satisfied before we would approve the application. If somebody wanted to dump wastewater on your property, you’d want to be involved too.”
Ak-Chin students lost in the system
Maricopa’s school population has ballooned to more than 4,500. Ak-Chin children used to make up 36 percent of the student body but have dropped to 17 percent. Delia Carlyle, a former school board member worries that her children and their educational needs will be lost in the shuffle.
“Delia’s concern is accurate,” says Superintendent Flores, who came from an Indiana district that’s also heavily multicultural. “The kids are less visible than in the past.” However, the Maricopa schools are doing their best to respect their needs and their culture, Flores states. “It’s our intent not to forget the contribution Native American kids have contributed to the area.”
But with more than 290 homes being built every month, the district will have a hard time keeping up with that promise, says Hall, who lauded Flores for his efforts. “He’s understaffed as it is just keeping up with all the growth.”
Aaron Becker, managing editor of 85239.com and 85239 Magazine, has even stronger words. “A lot of people come here from a lot of other places,” he says. “Dr. Flores is trying to overcome a lot of challenges. [The new residents] live in their own little private Idahos. People actually freaked out when they saw a mouse in one of the new schools.”
Cultural sites, petroglyphs damaged by development
And then there’s the matter of ancient off-reservation O’odham and Hohokam sites. “Every time we hear about a new development, we contact them about being sensitive to our cultural heritage,” says Carlyle. However, “There have only been two developers who complied with federal and state laws as well as our request to work out a burial agreement for the disposition of any human remains and cultural artifacts.”
Carlyle also deplores the vandalism of petroglyphs in the surrounding mountains. “This is destroying all our history,” she says.
Maricopa’s growing pains
Mayor Anderson feels Carlyle’s pain. “Delia and I meet regularly to discuss these issues,” says Anderson, who was one year behind Carlyle in high school. “We talk about the ‘good old days,’ the pre-Rancho El Dorado days,” he chuckles. Yet he is also focused on the future. “But we can’t stop growth, so how can we manage and direct it?” Anderson says.
He also sees the need to preserve agricultural corridors while accommodating growth. “The roads are there and the traffic’s going to be there,” says Anderson. “I still have a farm, and I’ve been thinking about how I would want to get my equipment in and out.” He proposes building an underpass for the Ak-Chin farm and fencing off Peters and Nall Road “so people can’t get off the road.”
Anderson also stresses that he considers Ak-Chin as a “stakeholder” in the Maricopa-Casa Grande Road project and other transportation projects. “We also hosted the State Transportation Board down here so they could see the issues we face.”
“All the growth is astounding,” he notes. “We’re growing at the rate of three people an hour. The governor’s been here two times.” He’s looking toward importing jobs so people won’t have to commute. “We want to keep a balance between employment and bedrooms,” says Anderson.
Maricopa itself is undergoing some growing pains. The municipal complex is housed in temporary structures; the city just lost out on relatively cheap land out by the feedlots and dairy farm after residents protested. With commercial real estate priced up to $300,000 an acre, the city may have a hard time finding a permanent home.
Anderson feels that Ak-Chin can take advantage of growth. “We have a sense of a small town here,” he says. “We have a lot of heritage, history and pride.” He also realizes that the two communities can do more collectively, and says that he plans on including his neighbor in the process.
He attributes the four fatalities in 10 months within the city limits to construction traffic and inattentive drivers who go through lights. “We’re working on safety measures,” says Anderson. “ADOT’s been good about installing signage.”
The city, tribe, Pinal County and DPS have also been working together on speed enforcement. And Anderson says that the two jurisdictions have had mutual aid agreements in place for “many, many years.”
However, Anderson does acknowledge that some developers attempt to do an end-run around the communities’ united front. “I know that they will go out and talk to Delia behind my back and vice versa,” he says. This is another reason for Ak-Chin and Maricopa to continue working together, says Anderson. “We have a long history of collaboration. Ak-Chin used to provide us fire protection without asking for anything in return and we’ve helped them out when we can.”
Becker, on the other hand, notices some gaps in the planning process. “When you have that much growth how do you plan?” he notes. “This is a numbers game. They don’t realize they’re affecting people’s lives. Why do you have to cram 15 years of development into five [as the city’s consultants recommend]? I don’t have time to train journalists to do an effective job when it happens this way.” With more than 60 percent of new residents possessing college degrees, and per capita income more than $32,000, “there’s such a sense of entitlement here,” says Becker. “There’s no poverty in Maricopa except for in the trailer park [in the old part of town]. It’s really ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”
Looking ahead
Even with all the headaches, Ak-Chin is looking ahead to its own future and the future of its neighbor. Ak-Chin is renovating its industrial park to take advantage of the business growth. Hickman’s Egg Ranch recently moved operations to the park. The growing tribe just broke ground for a new education/library building, community center and an early childhood development and day care center. The tribe is also planning new administrative and justice centers. A Boys and Girls Club is also in the works. And plans are underway to diversify from gaming, developing a retail center and expanding the hotel at the Harrah’s casino.
“Don’t get us wrong — there’s enough for everyone out here,” says Carlyle. “We just want to have our concerns heard. We want to be a good neighbor.”

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