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Hot air balloons floating over White Mountains-only event in the country

WHITE MOUNTAINS — If you happened to be awake early in the morning over the weekend, you would have seen 16 hot air balloons floating overhead in Pinetop-Lakeside and Show Low.

The 3rd Annual White Mountain Hot Air Balloon Festival was the only one of its kind in the country so far this summer as all other events were cancelled including the famous one in Albuquerque.

Sixteen balloon owners showed up from Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona to get a chance to fly. More wanted to come but had to be turned away.

Setting off from the Mountain Meadow Recreation area on Woodland Road, the balloons sailed over Rainbow and Show Low lakes and headed towards Show Low Airport. To the thrill of spectators at each of the lakes, many of the pilots touched their balloons down on the water.

“I was chomping at the bit to get up in the air,” said Nancy Aubol-Hanks who is from Albuquerque. “It puts a smile on my face. You feel like you’re being held up by the hand of God as the earth moves underneath you.” She has been flying hot air balloons for 38 years.

“I was told I couldn’t do it because it was a boy’s sport. Don’t tell me I can’t do something.”

Hector Corrominas is from San Antonio, Texas and said it was his first time at this event. He has been flying balloons for 12 years.

“I go to events from coast to coast and overseas,” said Corrominas. “I love to fly.”

The rest of the events normally held at the festival were cancelled, including the tethered rides and other activities at the park.

A pilot’s reception was held at the Hungry Buffalo on Thursday, June 25 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The Highway 260 band played on the patio while pilots and their families and friends mingled with Pinetop-Lakeside staff and sponsors of the event.

The Hungry Buffalo was one of the sponsors and Tony Alba, the Community Services manager for Pinetop-Lakeside, said none of the sponsors cancelled.

On Saturday night, the balloons “glowed” and people were able to drive through and take pictures though they couldn’t get out of their cars.

The event was considered a huge success, despite not having any of the other activities and here’s hoping next year’s event will be bigger and better.

Judging by the long line of traffic going into Mountain Meadows Recreation Complex in Lakeside on Saturday evening, June 27, the Balloon Glow was a huge success. Almost like Christmas lights flashing on and off, the glow of the balloons lit up the sky and soothed parched souls who were happy to get get out of the house in a safe social distancing way for something good. The Third Annual White Mountains Balloon Festival may have been postponed until 2021 but at least having the GLOW this year was a welcomed plus for the White Mountain Community.

Navajo County approves 43-slot RV camp in Heber

NAVAJO COUNTY — The Navajo County Board of Supervisors this week unanimously approved yet another RV park in Heber.

AJ’s Gateway RV Park will offer 43 RV camp sites and 30 spaces for RV and boat storage on 15 acres at the northeast corner of Highway 277 and Buckskin Road.

The supervisors approved a special use permit, the first step in a long process that will include later, detailed plans for drainage, sewage, water, power and other key details.

The owners will live onsite in an existing house. They plan to also run a small convenience store on site.

Only a couple of the neighbors offered an objection to the development, the latest in a series of businesses in the area that will cater to RV users and tiny-home dwellers in the unincorporated, forested community between Show Low and Payson. The community generally booms in the summer and empties in the winter, but it’s only a two hour drive from Phoenix.

The development will feature a 200-square-foot check-in area, a large ramada with picnic tables and a seven-foot-tall cedar fence around the outside. The owners promised to enforce quiet hours from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and shut the place down in the winter. The lighting will be designed to point downward, casting as little star-obscuring light upward as possible.

Several of the neighbors raised concerns about traffic, speeding ATV’s, dust, noise and reduced property values. However, no one spoke at the Tuesday hearing and most of the letters in the packet expressed support for the development.

The planning commission unanimously approved the proposal and the supervisors followed suit.

Owners Aaron and Wilma James said they hope the RV park can host community events and will remain accessible for special needs residents, since their own daughter has special needs when it comes to getting around.

Will Flake, with Painted Sky Engineering, said the septic system for the development will have to handle a flow of more than 10,000 gallons per day, which means the development will ultimately need a permit from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Most people who submitted letters favored the project.

Chris O’Conner of Mesa said “as avid RV’ers, we are concerned with the closure of RV parks around the country. We usually camp in Payson, but even that campground is full a lot because of people living in the campground. This would be a nice alternative.”

Tammy King, of Queen Creek, said she’s known the James family for a decade. “You won’t find a more dedicated, kind-hearted, hard-working couple anywhere. We have a wonderful group of people we off-road and camp with and we can’t wait for this campground to open.”

Concerns raised at a community meeting generated a list of almost 100 questions, which the James answered in the agenda packet.

Governor urges residents to stay home

PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey discusses Thursday the increasing number of Arizonans infected with COVID-19 and how the only way to turn that around is more people staying home and wearing face masks.

Gov. Doug Ducey is defending indoor political rallies with thousands of people without masks, even as he admitted the only way Arizona will stop the upward trend of infections is if people mask up and stay home.

“People’s rights to assemble are not going to be infringed,’’ the governor said Thursday when asked about his attendance at a Trump rally earlier this week at a packed north Phoenix church with about 3,000 people, the majority of who did not have face coverings. And Ducey is expected to attend two events this coming week with Vice President Pence, one in Tucson that has been billed as a campaign stop.

Ducey also brushed aside questions about how requiring people to wear masks — which is now the law in Phoenix — interferes with their right to assemble.

“It’s in the First Amendment,’’ he said.

At the same time, however, the governor announced the state Department of Liquor Licenses and Control had sent notices to eight Scottsdale bars which he said were not complying with the new “guidance’’ he issued last week to ensure protection of employees and patrons. That agency is empowered to take away the right of these establishments to serve alcohol.

“The crowded social gatherings that we’ve seen must be minimized,’’ he said.

All this is occurring as Ducey announced that the rate of COVID-19 infection in Arizona will continue to rise.

“I don’t want there to be illusion or sugar-coated expectations,’’ he said. “We expect that our numbers will be worse next week and the week following, in terms of cases and hospitalizations.’’

Arizona added 3,056 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total to 63,030. There also were another 27 deaths reported, with that tally now at 1,490.

Health officials reported a record 2,453 people hospitalized with COVID-19, with 611 in intensive-care beds, just shy of the record of 614 set a few days earlier.

And hospitals are now using 85 percent of their beds for all kinds of patients and 88 percent of ICU beds.

Finally, more than one out of every five tests for the virus is coming back positive.

What eventually will turn that around, Ducey said, is the fact that he agreed a week ago to allow cities and counties to impose face mask requirements.

He has refused to do this on a statewide basis. But the governor said the fact that 75 percent of the state now is under such a local mandate should finally result in the state turning the corner — for the moment.

“What we’re going to deal with now over the next 30 or 40 days, I believe will slow the spread of this virus,’’ the governor said.

“And then we will have a period of time,’’ he explained. “And then we will head into a second wave.’’

Ducey, who dissolved his stay-at-home order in the middle of last month after six weeks, said he is not prepared to reinstate it.

But the governor said that, mandate or not, people should stay at home when they don’t need to be out.

“Go out and get a haircut,’’ he said.

“Get something to eat,’’ Ducey continued. “And go home.’’

Cara Christ, his health director, echoed that message.

“You are safer at home with your household contacts,’’ she said. And Christ said there are things people need to consider if and when they do go out.

“Indoor spaces are riskier than being outdoors,’’ she said. And the more people there are, Christ said, the greater the risk of infection.

But the governor said none of that convinces him that gatherings should be restricted — or that those in attendance should be required to wear personal protective equipment.

“In terms of the rights of people to peacefully assemble, those rights are not going to be infringed,’’ Ducey said.

“It is an election year in the United States,’’ he said. “And people’s constitutional rights will be protected.’’

Instead, he said, it’s up to those who go to protect themselves, just as he is now doing.

“Wearing a mask is a huge part of avoiding contracting this virus,’’ Ducey said.

“Also physically distancing from people,’’ he continued. “And I’m going to continue to do that going forward.’’

Ducey also defended the travel plans by both Trump and Pence.

“The president and vice president have a job,’’ he said.

“I have a job,’’ Ducey continued. “We’re not going to get in the way of the job that they have to do.’’

Anyway, the governor said, both are focused on places like Arizona and “states that are having issues to address that in its turn.’’

Pence is going to Yuma this coming week to meet with Ducey to discuss the state’s response to COVID-19. And the vice president’s planned visit to Tucson is billed as part of his “Faith in America’’ tour and not as official business.

Planning and Zoning approves 180 foot cell tower in Lakeside

PINETOP-LAKESIDE — Representatives for Smith Bagley, Inc. d/b/a Cellular One of North East AZ, appeared before the Planning and Zoning Commission on June 25 with two requests, both requiring public hearings. The first request was for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to erect a cellphone/EMS tower on property at Mountain Meadow Recreation Complex (MMRC) on Woodland Lake Road, and the second, for a Variance review for that tower to be 80 feet higher than the 100 feet allowed by town code.

Community Development Director Cody Blake explained that the tower would be located in the back parking lot of MMRC in the southeast corner, behind the existing garbage enclosure. He said the property is zoned R-Low (Residential, Low Density) which allows for wireless communication facilities with towers up to 100 feet.

The tower is needed to improve cell phone service in the area to alleviate dropped calls which include EMS and 911 calls. The tower would also be designed as a co-location tower, allowing other companies onto the tower.

Blake explained that though it is normal to send out letters to property owners that are within 300 feet of the proposed tower location, the letter was sent to everyone within 400 feet because the tower size extends boundaries. He said they received two emails objecting to the tower and one letter stating they were OK with the tower and the height.

Blake said they looked at other locations within the park but the northern part has a riparian area, and there are also plans for a future parking lot there. Other areas explored did not meet the accessibility requirements needed for tower maintenance.

Blake said that Cellular One will put up a chain link fence around the area. The town wants a split-face block fence – something you can’t see through – as well as additional landscaping for safety and aesthetics. The fence would be 7 feet high. He said they have checked and have no safety concerns as the tower structure foundation will be required to meet all code requirements and engineering standards.

Dennis Baker with Cellular One explained that the smaller flag pole technology they previously used around 2006 or 2007, located at Yosippity’s, Mahoney Group, Pinetop Country Club and Blue Ridge High School, no longer fits with the new technology. He said they now have to get above the trees and the terrain. He also said that safety is a big issue with him and they will have barbed wire at the top of the fence and will remove the climbing pegs so that a ladder will have to be used.

“AT&T FirstNet is pushing us out of those flag poles,” said Baker. “They are doing a national strict service and network for emergency service – police and fire and ambulance.” He said AT&T FirstNet would go on the tower first. A space would be offered to Verizon next.

Two people spoke at the public hearing regarding the CUP, Paul Adams of Zuni Lane, and Maureen Serrano of Woodland Road.

Adams, questioning the number of calls actually dropped, said he has no problem with cell service in the area. He did express, however, concern about a 180 foot tower being in the middle of the park during monsoon season with lightning. He also said, “I don’t want to look at a 180 foot tower the rest of my life and there is no aesthetic value to it.”

Serrano, a realtor, said she has owned her property before the town was a town, “and, we are not happy about a tower going in right next to us and it will affect adversely our property value.”

Serrano said she is not opposed to the tower and suggested there might be another place in the park for it. She also expressed concern of possible health risks with the tower.

Cell One’s RF Engineer Mark Lane was asked about the health risk and said that though he is no expert many studies had been done – one in particular – that shows a tower poses no health risks.

The commissioners inquired about other park locations for the tower and Blake responded to their suggestions saying he was willing to look further but the locations are very limited. Most of the areas suggested by the commissioners had been considered but they all had issues ranging from access to the ball and soccer field to park storage to drainage issues.

The commissioners unanimously approved the CUP for the requested location with the stipulation that other locations be explored before the July 2 council and Board of Adjustment meetings, and that the facility must have a split- faced concrete block wall to fence in the area; trees must be planted no more than 10 feet apart outside the fenced area to provide screening to the wall within 6 months of the completion of construction, and Cellular One will be responsible to move an existing Frisbee golf basket to a new location as directed by the town’s park staff.

There were no comments in the public hearing for the Variance issue and Blake said the town will enter into a five year lease agreement with Cellular One, with renewability options for around $800 a month to the town.

Commissioners unanimously voted to recommend to the Board of Adjustment that the 180 foot tower be erected. The Board of Adjustments will meet following the July 2 town council meeting.