By JOANI WOELFEL
Candidates for District 3 county supervisor are traveling a divided highway when it comes to crossing Oak Creek near Sedona.
A bitter conflict over an alternate route from Sedona to the Village of Oak Creek has raged since 1978, when Red Rock Crossing — a low-water crossing that connected Red Rock Loop Road to Verde Valley School Road — washed away and was not replaced.
Over the years, growing traffic congestion in Sedona has a contingent of people looking for another way to get from point A to point B. For some, the only alternative roadway is where it used to be, at Red Rock Crossing. For others, such an arterial will happen over their dead bodies.
In one corner are environmentalists, property owners and other concerned citizens who maintain that pavement linking the two urban areas will have a severe and negative impact on what is among the world's most photographed scenes, and on the residents who live along the only two roads leading to it.
In the other corner is Citizens For an Alternate Route, an organized group of activists who argue a precedent was set once the roadway was established and because that basic infrastructure already is in place, the route is the most logical direction for the traffic to be routed.
Few would disagree there needs to be a more direct way to get from West Sedona to the VOC and vice versa, besides the already overburdened intersection of Arizona 89A and 179, but that's about where any consensus ends. And while the controversial crossing is located in Yavapai County, many believe the traffic it seeks to relieve is an issue for Sedona and Coconino County.
An unsuccessful attempt two years ago by Yavapai County to take a lead role in coming up with a solution ended up in court. After spending countless man hours and nearly $400,000 since 1994 on the search for an alternate route, the county abandoned the effort in 1998 when it was apparent no consensus would be reached between the warring parties and the cost of conducting an environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act became prohibitive. CFAR then filed suit in an effort to force the county to replace the crossing. A judge tossed out the suit in late 1998 and an appeals court later sided with the ruling.
Since then, all's been quiet on the crossing front, until now: It's election time.
Support from those who want to see the placement of a bridge at Red Rock Crossing is clearly in the corner of challenger Jon Paladini, whose campaign is furthering CFAR’s cause. CFAR President Ivan Finley is among Paladini's staunchest supporters and Davis' biggest critics. Finley has said if elected, he believes Paladini will unify divided fronts that he said have been created between communities in the Verde Valley.
In the last election, Davis drew a great deal of his support from the Village of Oak Creek and the Yavapai County side of Sedona, the latter of which Paladini contends has since waned significantly, especially among city leaders.
“Essentially, I think Sedona is feeling ignored, not just government people but others in the community feel ignored on county issues," he said.
Paladini said he opposes the move underfoot to pave Beaverhead Flat Road between the outskirts of the VOC, also called Big Park, and Cornville, where he is a resident.
"It's going to change the rural nature of Page Springs and Cornville because it will funnel traffic through it and it could do the same for Big Park," said Paladini.
While he disputes Davis' contention that the $3.7 million now budgeted by Yavapai County to complete the project is about half as much as it will really cost, his reasons for opposing it actually seem rooted in the Red Rock Crossing debate. He criticized Davis for leaving Red Rock Crossing out of what is commonly known as the Lima transportation study, saying it rendered the study completely unobjective.
Asserting improvements to Beaverhead Flat will cut off only about seven to eight minutes of the trip from Big Park to the rest of the Verde Valley, Paladini said, "It's way too much money to spend to save so little time."
In the long-term, because there is a 100-foot right of way and it is all U.S. Forest Service land, Paladini said developing Beaverhead Flat Road as a major collector road will lead to "long-term impact and massive land trades and development, which could lead to increased traffic, air quality and water quantity problems and more strip development along the road."
"The potential is too great," he concluded.
Paladini continued, "I believe that we need to take an honest look at putting in a low-water crossing that uses Verde Valley School Road and the Loop Road as a local route for emergency vehicles and local traffic. I don't necessarily support placing that low-water crossing at the historic location ... but if you put it there you need to find that balance between function and safety and protecting the environment."
In resurrecting the topic, Paladini said, "It's emotional and controversial but it's not a reason to shy away. As a leader you should step right into the fray."
At this point elements of the argument appear moot. The county last week approved closure of the primitive roadway Oct. 1 for up to a year so that it can be realigned and paved.
Nevertheless, Paladini said he believes such a route will be cheaper than paving Beaverhead Flat. As for paying for the roadway, he said that should be determined by assessing the use of the route and determining who benefits, which he admitted is not likely to be county residents.
"If costs exceed benefits to the area," said Paladini, "this area may need to look at creating a special improvement district to pay its part."
Davis, on the other hand, having jumped headfirst into the fray as a supervisor, sees the writing on the wall.
"I don't know if you'll ever see a bridge at Red Rock Crossing, and I don't say that because I'll fight it all my life," he said. "There's so much controversy surrounding that (route) ... it is on Forest Service property, and it'll be tied up in the court system forever."
He defended the Lima study, saying it was intended only to examine current roads and the levels of traffic that were on them at the time. Davis said the study was to project traffic volumes 20 years out and it reflected volumes that initially had been projected in 2005.
He noted that a previous study considered the low-water crossing and that "if the intention of the roadway was to move large volumes of traffic from (Arizona) 179 to West Sedona, you need to build a roadway capable of that capacity. If you want to move thousands of cars per day, it doesn't need to be a roadway that goes through a residential area, or by a school or golf course," making reference to the Village of Oak Creek end of the equation, where he still draws much of his political support.
Rather than fight the uphill battle, Davis said county supervisors unanimously withdrew and directed their energies toward road projects that had consensus.
"That has allowed us to take those funds and rather than spend it on attorney fees, we are building roads such as the Mingus Avenue extension, the Fir Street reconstruction and Beaverhead Flat Road," and, Davis said, he is confident the latter will be built as budgeted.
"These roads will be completed in the next one to two years and we're not bogged down in the court system."
Davis said he's been working with the Arizona Department of Transportation on an alternate route that is part of the agency's preferred alignment for the expansion and reconstruction of Arizona 179, also a growing controversy among Sedona residents.