SPRINGERVILLE—The Town of Springerville welcomes a new business to its airport area and residents can already see the outlines of a dozen or so greenhouses going up on the parcel of property that the Town of Springerville has leased to an entity called White Mountains Flower, LLC. That company expects to “cultivate and infuse” cannabis plants for sale to distributors. It will not be a retail store.
The town hopes for the creation at least 50 jobs within the first phase of the operation. The second phase envisions up to 300 positions. The jobs reportedly will pay more than minimum wage, and benefits will be offered to employees. An email and phone call to one Steven Petuck, the owner of the LLC to verify that information, were not returned.
The timing and details of the phases and their implementation are also not clear, but the town has moved very quickly on the opportunity — faster than some residents would like. For example, during the November 10 meeting of the the town’s planning and zoning commission, the commission rezoned the airport parcel (105-18-021E) to accommodate the new business and approved the conditional use permit for the company. Two days later, the Town Council considered a lease of town land to White Mountains Flower and signed a development agreement with that company’s former incarnation, MWM760M, LLC.
At the same Nov. 12 meeting, the council unanimously approved the lease and the agreement. The lease was signed by Springerville Mayor Phil Hanson, Jr. Three weeks later, on Dec. 3, private citizen Phil Hanson, Jr. signed an employment agreement with the company, according to the town manager.
Further, Town Attorney Timothy Shaffery confirmed that the company has hired Councilman Ruben Llamas as its general manager. Shaffery said that Llamas did not know of any employment opportunities with White Mountains Flower when he voted to approve its lease on Nov. 12, but learned later about the subsequent job fair and applied. Shaffery also was clear that in his opinion as the town’s attorney there is no conflict with the hire, but if one arises between the town and the business, it could become one. The optics of the new hires being town officials seem to add to the opprobrium coming from some quarters.
The Independent has been hearing from residents who are unhappy with the development for other reasons. Some of those objections are set forth in a Springerville resident’s letter to the editor in today’s paper. Earlier this week, Town Manager Joe Jarvis answered written inquires about the project, and about the objections to it.
One bone of contention is the use of water. One resident who asked that their name not be used, told the Independent that the town has recently raised water rates and provided free water saving contraptions to Springerville homes in an effort to reduce water use. The letter to the editor raised the alarm about the amount of water a cannabis farm will use and suggests that other users of water from the Little Colorado River will get squeezed. Jarvis stated that one presenter to the Council estimated that one cannabis plant consumes one litre of water daily, but he hasn’t verified that. As to the view about a bad effect on the water supply there, he stated, “I do not agree,” with that opinion.
One caller claimed that last summer, the town sold to a private buyer a lot with a house on it. That lot is next to the airport parcel at issue here. It was claimed that the cannabis farm is violating the town’s own ordinance by being too close to that home. Manager Jarvis explained that the lot is actually zoned for agricultural use, even though a home is on it and therefore there is no violation.
An attendee at the Nov. 12 council meeting spoke and wondered when, why and how the zoning for the parcel at issue went from residential zoning to commercial. Jarvis explained that town maps show that the parcel has been zoned as industrial since before 1996 and the planning and zoning commission at their November 10 meeting changed the zoning from industrial to “light industrial.”
Another issue is the ingress and egress to the farm. Planners intend to use Airport Road for that purpose and no other infrastructure is currently planned, Jarvis said. One resident said that the road isn’t fit for the expected traffic.
Regarding the issue of Mayor Hanson taking a job with White Mountains Flower, Jarvis confirmed that the mayor attended a job fair hosted by the company and a few weeks later Hanson signed an employment agreement with them. That employment is contingent upon the operation receiving an “Approval to Operate” which issues from the Arizona State Department of Health Services, not the town.
Finally, there is the issue of what’s in it for the town. Springerville does not levy property taxes and the sales of product to distributors is not subject to a retail sales tax, said Jarvis. There is an excise tax that must be paid when a government leases property to a private person, but Jarvis said that tax “will go to the County and possibly the state.”
The town will get $9,600 annually from the lease. The lease term is 25 years, but it’s customary for the lease amount to be reviewed as time goes on. The benefit to the town is the prospect of between 50 and 300 decent paying jobs with benefits, going to the local residents. Additionally, there could be substantial benefits to the town in having not only its own residents having the money to spend there, but also, traveling employees from other communities spending money in Springerville and possibly relocating.
With the future of the local coal fired power plant in question, town leaders and some residents see the new cannabis farm as a big plus. In June 2020, it was reported that Tucson Electric Power which owns two units of the four unit coal fired Springerville Generating Station will phase out those units by 2027 and 2032, according to the publication Solar Power World.
The article reports that “The timeline would allow TEP to reduce the plant’s workforce through attrition while providing time for the company to help the local community minimize the impact of the units’ retirement.”
It is hoped that new endeavors like the cannabis farm will provide the region with replacement jobs.
Town Council will hold a meeting on Jan. 20 at 6 p.m. and it can be expected that the issue of the farm will be front and center.