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May 18, 2009 -- Arizona Star (AZ)

Prison Plan Opposition Grows

County's Help Sought To Fight US Facility Slated For O'odham Land Near Sahuarita

By Erica Meltzer, Arizona Star

Community activists, immigrant-rights advocates, tribal critics and local elected officials don't want to see a federal detention center built near Pima Mine Road on the San Xavier District of the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Opponents, including residents of Rancho Sahuarita and the Rev. Robin Hoover of Humane Borders, asked the Pima County Board of Supervisors last week for the county's help in stopping the prison's construction.

The county's power lies only in raising questions and asking the federal government to require more study of the impact before signing off on the project. The county has no direct jurisdiction over projects built on sovereign Indian territory.

Pima County Supervisors Ramón Valadez and Sharon Bronson joined County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry in sending a letter Friday to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They raised numerous concerns about the project, including impacts on regional flooding, archaeological resources near the Santa Cruz River, traffic and conservation efforts.

The comments are in response to an environmental assessment prepared for the project that critics say ignores effects the prison would have outside the reservation.

The county asked that the federal government require an environmental-impact statement, which is a much more thorough study.

Many residents of neighboring Sahuarita say the assessment treats the project as if its impact stopped at the San Xavier District boundaries. The assessment does not address the schools, homes and parks in Rancho Sahuarita, less than a mile away.

"While they may be a quasi-sovereign nation, they do not exist in a vacuum," Rancho Sahuarita resident Linda Cooper said.

District Chairman Austin Nuñez said anyone who lives near the Tohono O'odham land should have known there was the potential for development there. He said the request for input from other communities is "more a courtesy than anything else."

"We feel the project is being considerate of the neighbors in terms of light pollution, in terms of noise pollution," he said. "We moved it further north of Pima Mine Road. It's a single story and should not be visible. The security will be maximum, even though it's a medium-security facility."

The district is hoping to build a 750-bed, 140,000-square-foot prison on 48 acres just east of the Santa Cruz River and about 4,000 feet north of Pima Mine Road. The prison would create around 300 jobs, and the district would be paid a percentage of the bed fee.

Pima Mine Road is the boundary between Sahuarita and the San Xavier District, one of 11 districts within the Tohono O'odham Nation. It's also the northern boundary of Sahuarita's largest population center, the 4,200-home Rancho Sahuarita master-planned community.

"On a personal level, I just think it's going to change a lot of people's lifestyles," said Julia Whetten, a Rancho Sahuarita resident. "We came here looking for safety and wanting to raise our children with the values we grew up with. To have something that's so close that is a reminder of the evils of the world is just not what I want for my children."

And Rancho Sahuarita residents aren't the only ones opposing the project.

Former Tohono O'odham Tribal Council member David Garcia, who is not a member of the San Xavier District, said the U.S. Border Patrol detention centers that have been built on the reservation should raise questions about the project, including what sort of liability the tribe and the district would face if prisoners were to file lawsuits over their treatment at the planned facility. He said hearings on the proposal are needed.

Hoover told the Board of Supervisors he is concerned that the prison will not meet state and federal standards for treatment of detainees because there is not the same accountability on tribal land.

Nuñez said the facility will meet the highest standards.

Valadez said he believes new prisons should be built in the same area as the existing state and federal prisons on South Wilmot Road, where residents knew what they were getting when they bought houses there.

Bronson said she has serious concerns about possible flooding from the reservation site.

Officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs could not be reached Friday to talk about whether they would require the San Xavier District to do more to address community concerns.

Contact reporter Erica Meltzer at 807-7790 or

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