Take 2: Controversial Italian Developer Again Seeks Easements Near Grand Canyon

The town of Tusayan bills itself as a gateway to Grand Canyon.
The town of Tusayan bills itself as a gateway to Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon National Park
Italian developer Stilo and the northern Arizona town of Tusayan submitted an easement proposal Wednesday, September 4,  that, if successful, could literally pave the way for massive developments near the Grand Canyon.

They are seeking road and utility easements from the U.S. Forest Service that would give the town, located 10 miles south of Grand Canyon National Park, and the developer access to two parcels of land they own that are surrounded by the Kaibab National Forest.

The proposal comes just three months after a viral tweet warning of the construction of "over 2000 houses, a spa, a convention center, and potentially a 'water park'" sparked international outcry and put the town and developer on defense.

Stilo has longstanding but unfulfilled plans to build behemoth retail and residential complexes — hotels, restaurants, and shopping arcades — at the 175-acre Ten-X Ranch, which it owns, and the 140-acre Kotzin Ranch, which it also owns.

To achieve its dreams, Stilo needs quick and easy access to those properties, and right now, the Forest Service's existing dirt and gravel roads just aren't good enough. Plus, Stilo needs utility corridors for sewer lines, power lines, and other infrastructure, as the draft proposal submitted Thursday lays out.

Tusayan, meanwhile, owns two separate 20-acre plots at each development, parcels that Stilo donated to the town for affordable housing. Which means that the town also needs these roads and easements so it can access and develop its land.

In the 20-page draft proposal, Stilo and Tusayan request access to a total of 28,213 feet of roads and utility corridors, including 255 feet of sewer line, on more than 50 acres of Forest Service land.

The document contains little detail on the impact of the requested easements, and the developments they could foster, on the surrounding land and people. Instead, it leaves such thorny questions for future environmental reviews, or couches potential consequences in a jumble of jargon.

For example, while the proposed easement "would not directly result in population growth," it says that "the population growth anticipated by the authorized zoning of the in-holdings" — that would be the hotels, the restaurants, the shopping malls — "is a reasonably foreseeable future action that would be considered during the environmental review of this application."

Sections of three Forest Roads leading to Ten-X Ranch and Kotzin Ranch would be upgraded or constructed anew, according the draft proposal. They would be smoothed and paved and widened to two 14-feet lanes, each flanked by a 2-foot shoulder, a 14-foot utility corridors, and an 8-foot-wide bike and pedestrian path (that's 80 feet wide in total).

The draft proposal doesn't say how wide the roads currently are. Nor does it say how many trucks, cars, and people will be using them. "The volume of traffic and sizes of utilities are undetermined at this time," it says.

click to enlarge A screenshot of Stilo's website, touting its development ambitions near Grand Canyon. - STILO
A screenshot of Stilo's website, touting its development ambitions near Grand Canyon.

Nor does it explicitly say how much construction will cost. Instead, it refers readers to reports from 2011, which it says are in attached appendices that are not actually attached to the publicly available application. As for who'll pay, that's on Stilo, the draft application says — unless Stilo takes too long.

"If not completed in a timely manner the Town may fund and construct," the document says.

Jackie Banks, spokesperson for the Kaibab National Forest, confirmed that the Forest Service had received Tusayan's draft proposal on Thursday. It's not clear how long the Forest Service will take to review it.

"We don't have an estimated time frame, but we certainly want to take whatever time is going to be necessary," Banks said.

She emphasized that the draft application remains precisely that — a draft, which has to pass the Forest Service's screening criteria before the application can be considered "accepted." Until then, the process does not include public comment, Banks said.

If it is accepted, then it begins to go through the environmental review process. If it fails, Stilo and Tusayan can try again. “There’s no limit on how many proposals they could potentially submit,” Banks said.

The last time Tusayan and Stilo submitted an easement proposal to the Forest Service was 2014. In 2016, Kaibab Forest Supervisor Heather Provencio rejected it, saying that the proposal would "stress local and park infrastructure and have untold impacts to the surrounding Tribal and National Park lands."

"There is significant evidence the proposal is not in the public interest," she added.

"There is significant evidence the proposal is not in the public interest." - Kaibab Forest Supervisor Heather Provencio, in 2016.

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In a special town council meeting on Thursday, a recording of which was obtained by Phoenix New Times, Tusayan Mayor Craig Sanderson said that the new proposal was "very similar to the previous one," albeit with two significant changes.

One, as the town and Stilo mention in their new cover letter to Provencio, concerns groundwater. "This proposal prohibits the use of groundwater for commercial development on the properties that would be accessed by the road," they write.
Upon further scrutiny, that prohibition contains two glaring loopholes.

Groundwater could still be used for "residential uses," the draft proposal notes, without specifying how "residential uses" is defined. Stilo also reserves the right to use groundwater in the future "as a result of technological breakthroughs resulting in proven zero-impact upon groundwater resources."

Commercial water demands, it adds, will be met by hauling water via trucks — an estimated 20 truck deliveries per day. The document says nothing about the source of the trucked water, the noise that 20 trucks, rumbling along a road in the forest, would create, or the pollution, or really any drawbacks to trucking water.

The other change was the density of the developments, which, Stilo and Tusayan promised Provencio, had been lowered by 30 percent. But the draft application left unclear whether the developments would actually have a lower density, or whether the square footage of developments had simply been reduced and the density left unchanged.

“The purpose of this is in order to provide access for the town for our properties, that we are owners of Kotzin and Ten-X, as well as Stilo, who also has properties, for the purpose of development of those properties,” Sanderson said during the town meeting.

Contradicting the fact that the Forest Service doesn't accept public comments at this stage in the process, Sanderson said that "public input is invited and encouraged throughout."

How the public is expected to weigh in remains a mystery.

click to enlarge This is what Stilo once envisioned building near Grand Canyon. - YOUTUBE
This is what Stilo once envisioned building near Grand Canyon.

TusayansFuture.com, a website promoting the proposed developments around Tusayan, contains no practical information about commenting. Instead, the FAQ section says, "It is important that members of the public participate in any future planning for Tusayan. We will keep you updated on any opportunities to weigh in with Stilo, the Town of Tusayan, and the Forest Service at the appropriate time."

Reached by phone Wednesday, Eric Duthie, Tusayan's town manager, told New Times that Vice Mayor Brady Harris was handling media queries about Tusayan.

Harris did not respond to New Times' request for comment. A spokesperson for Stilo also did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment.

The proposal has been controversial for years, and the town of Tusayan, and Stilo, came under renewed fire in recent months.

In late May, in response to the viral tweet, Tusayan officials deflected, saying that the tweet referenced old information, that the Forest Service in 2016 had rejected their last attempt to secure easements, and that the two groups had not submitted anything since then.

Duthie told New Times via email in June that the tweet referred to housing developments for the town, not Stilo's proposed massive commercial developments.

On June 3, in response to the viral tweet, Tusayan Vice Mayor Brady Harris sent out a mass email "laying out a few facts regarding the development of Ten X and the surrounding area."

"This news is 3 years old," he wrote. "As of now [Stilo has] not provided plans to the Town to develop their land at Ten X further," he added.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.