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Trees And Bulldozers In Sedona

In the New Age capital of Sedona, the great outdoors is a precious commodity. Red cliffs and lush greenery make the land one of the state's most beautiful spots for tourists and day-tripping city folk. For others the attraction goes deeper. Sedona is world famous as a metaphysical "hot spot," a place where the ground holds special properties, a place where rocks are fountains of magical energy. So, more than most other towns, Sedona's trees and rocks and dirt have worth. For example, the current worth of Sedona's trees is $1,000 each. This figure was arrived at last month by the Sedona City Council when it drafted an emergency tree-preservation ordinance. The council, working in a frenzy of environmentalism sparked by the construction of a new Safeway store and the related relocation of a small mountain of red dirt, made it illegal to cut down trees.

The law came too late to save the Shelby Road trees, but they did not die in vain. This is their story.

It all started long before the morning of May 20 when Larry Cowan woke to the sound of chain saws outside his bedroom window. It started back when ground was broken for a new shopping center out on 89A, one of Sedona's major thoroughfares and arguably one of the prettiest highways in the country. A big Safeway store will be the major tenant of the center once it's done, and that won't be for a while because 200,000 cubic yards of dirt and rocks have to be moved from the site before construction can start. (That a large amount of scenic trees, rocks and red dirt has to be removed before a Safeway store can be built in Sedona is a story in itself. There are members of the Sedona citizenry who look upon enterprises such as grocery stores, gas stations and chain restaurants as unholy intrusions on the natural splendor of their space. Still, progress marches on. A new Bashas' store is now in the works for Sedona, too.)

Those 200,000 cubic yards of Sedona have to go somewhere. Some time ago, Park West, a Phoenix-based shopping-center developer, contracted with C&F Equipment Company, also of Phoenix, to move the dirt. Also some time ago, C&F applied for and received all the required paperwork to move the dirt onto a plot the company already had taken steps to purchase.

Cut to Shelby Road, about a half mile from the Safeway site. On Saturday, May 20, Sedona resident Larry Cowan woke to the sound of chain saws. A team of C&F workers was cutting down mature juniper trees on a lot adjacent to his home. "There were like ten guys over there, and four or five trucks," Cowan says. "I never counted them, but with all the smoke and noise . . . I was appalled." After talking with the workers, Cowan discovered that they intended to cut down nine full acres of trees and that the parcel of land next door to his house was going to be the future home of 200,000 cubic acres of fill dirt. He then returned home. Over at June Cornelison's house, the phone rang. Cornelison, one of Cowan's neighbors and Sedona's vice mayor, was already awake, because she had heard the chain saws, too.

Within an hour Sedona city officials had cooked up a stop-work order and delivered it to the Shelby Road site, but not before the crew cut down about twenty trees. C&F president Duke Francis (a part-time Sedona resident, according to his lawyer) then agreed to meet with all concerned parties at 11 a.m. the following Wednesday, at which time there would be a discussion of the dirt-fill project. On Monday, May 22, Sedona city officials begin drafting their emergency tree-preservation law in hopes of having it ready to discuss at the meeting with Francis. Enter Michael Curtis.

"The president of C&F sought the proper regulatory approval to move fill dirt from a site . . . to a piece of property that was a distance away," recaps Curtis, Duke Francis' Phoenix-based attorney. "Mr. Francis complied with all the rules and regulations. [When the actual work commenced] the residents adjacent to the property . . . suddenly aroused themselves and others and said to the city, `You can't do that.'

"Within a matter of 48 hours, Mr. Francis was backed into a corner and told that if you just wait, things could be worked out. He already had all the permits. What he was supposed to wait for was an emergency meeting of the city council, acting under the regulatory powers granted to them by the state, that was probably going to pass an ordinance, which nobody had been actively promoting and there had been no lengthy public hearings on, but which was going to effectively shut him down, disrupt his contract, which was to remove the dirt, and delay him and possibly bankrupt him. "He found himself the cause

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Dave Walker