FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Work on an off-grid housing development in a small town outside the Grand Canyon has stopped because the town doesn’t have approval to build in a flood plain.
Millions of people pass through Tusayan each year on their way to the canyon’s South Rim entrance, unaware of decades of infighting in the community over infrastructure, housing and other development. The companies that run Tusayan’s hotels and restaurants also own almost all of its homes.
Nearly nine years after it incorporated, Tusayan last year broke ground on what is supposed to be the first opportunity for residents to buy homes. An Italian real-estate group, Stilo Development Group USA, gave the town the land for the Ten X Ranch development in exchange for rezoning and annexing its properties.
Tusayan Mayor Craig Sanderson says crews graded the area, built up the dirt where the homes would sit and rerouted a wash in line with what it believed were the county’s guidelines for surface water flow. The town agreed to halt the work on the same day the Coconino County Flood Control District sued Tusayan, alleging it violated flood plain regulations and state law.
The development’s first 20 homes originally were expected to be ready for residents to move in mid-year.
“I can’t tell you when it’s going to happen,” Sanderson said.
The county flood district said it became aware in April of the town’s development plans in parts of a normally dry wash that extend beyond the boundaries of the community of about 550 people. The district wrote to the town manager saying construction could not start without a flood plain use permit. In his emailed response, town manager Eric Duthie asked, “What project are you referring to?”
In October, Duthie told a county hydrologist the town was its own flood plain administrator.
However, an ordinance Tusayan passed in August establishing itself as flood plain administrator never took effect. A resident successfully petitioned to refer the matter to the ballot, and an election tentatively is planned in May. In the meantime, the county remains in charge of flood plain regulations.
According to the lawsuit, the town never informed the county about the referendum petition.
Lucinda Andreani, county flood district director, said the town must restore an earthen pond it removed at Ten X and submit hydrological studies to ensure the development won’t make flooding worse downstream where most of Tusayan lies. Existing flood maps for the entire watershed are decades old, she said.
Previous studies vary widely in the amount of water that could flow over the property without causing significant flooding.
Clarinda Vail, whose family has a long history in Tusayan, initiated the referendum petition. She said the town is misrepresenting when it started work at Ten X, which also includes a planned solar electric grid.
“The way the town is handling things has us all really concerned, where we can’t really trust they would handle flood control properly,” she said.
Sanderson says the town wasn’t flouting the law, and neither he nor the Town Council were aware of the county’s communication with Duthie.
The town is paying $91,000 a week for the stalled construction, a figure that will change to $67,000 a month starting Feb. 1, Duthie said.
The town is limited to 20 houses at Ten X until it can get approval for an easement on a U.S. Forest Service road on behalf of Stilo for planned commercial development at another property Stilo owns in Tusayan, Sanderson said. The Forest Service returned the town’s application in 2016, saying it was worried about its impacts on Grand Canyon National Park and nearby tribal lands. The town hasn’t resubmitted the plan.