The little creatures were enough to sell Ray Griswold and his wife on Union Foothills Estates six years ago. The 200-acre plot of desert just beyond Phoenix's northern border struck them as a tranquil outpost with ample spacing between neighbors.

"People want to live in the desert that hasn't been bulldozed by some idiot," Griswold says. "We like to sit and eat breakfast and watch the rabbits and quail right outside our window. It's nice."
Nice, that is, except for a nearby explosives plant, which periodically blows up its leftover charges. And the fact that Griswold and his neighbors were stranded by the Central Arizona Project canal and had to build an illegal road across state land to gain access to their homes.

Seeking flight to desert serenity, Griswold and several dozen other homeowners instead have found themselves entangled in a vexing skirmish with state, local and federal officials over the future of their little island of civilization.

Universal Propulsion Company, a neighbor not universally loved by nearby homeowners, is seeking to expand its acreage, a move that could cut off the access in and out of Union Foothills Estates. Griswold and his neighbors are fighting back, trying to contain the plant and make the state give them a legal road to their homes.

The result has been a confusing attempt by various government agencies to straighten out a situation that became very untidy while no one was paying attention.

Union Foothills Estates was created in the late 1950s, when the federal government held a lottery and sold 2 1/2-acre parcels to World War II veterans for a cheap price. In the middle of nowhere, the land was not considered particularly valuable, and for years few people actually built on it.

The subdivision lies about half a mile north of Happy Valley Road, and would be between Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street if those two roads extended that far. The half-mile strip between the neighborhood and the nearest road is state trust land.

Originally, planners envisioned Seventh Avenue as the road that would tether the neighborhood to Happy Valley Road, and for years it was. But in the early 1980s, the CAP canal was cut through just southwest of the neighborhood, and it severed the Seventh Avenue connection.

No big deal, says Griswold. "Somebody just started driving across the desert," he says. Homeowners cut their own dirt-and-gravel road across the state trust land and took to using it.

Over time, as more and more houses were built in the hills, the road became illegally institutionalized. Homeowners now chip in $10 each per month to maintain it, plus special assessments when storms or wear from construction vehicles require the neighborhood association to hire a road grader, Griswold says.

The arrangement might have gone on indefinitely were it not for an inevitable conflict between the growing neighborhood and Universal Propulsion, a company that had its own reasons for locating far away from crowds when it moved to the area 20 years ago.

The company, owned by Talley Industries, makes the explosive charges that blow ejection seats out of airplanes when pilots must bail out. "Every pilot that escapes from an airplane is usually riding our stuff," company vice president John Huber proudly proclaims.

In 1972 the company leased 160 acres of state trust land southeast of the then sparsely populated Union Foothills Estates, precisely because the middle of nowhere was a good place for an explosives plant, Huber says.

The plant grew over time, but so did the neighborhood, and the two were destined to run into each other. That happened earlier this year, when the company applied to the state Land Department to expand its lease, taking in 64 acres south of the current site and 58 acres to the west.

The 58-acre plot to the west of the plant includes Union Foothills' illegal road.

Because Union Foothills Estates has grown, Huber says, the company is trying to enlarge its buffer zone. It does not plan to build anything on the land, but wants to ensure that there is an adequate margin of safety around the plant, he says.

"If we get the lease," he says, "we will care for it as we do our own, disturb it as little as possible and probably fence the perimeter to keep dirt bikes and the like out."
Griswold and his neighbors fear the expansion. They believe, despite Huber's protestations, that the company is planning to use the land to grow. Along with losing their roadway, they are troubled that unneighborly activity--specifically explosions--at the plant will increase.

About twice a week, the plant conducts "burns," during which it ignites explosives left over from the production process.

"When they collect enough of this stuff, they put it in a big pile out in the open and then they set it off," Griswold says. "Sometimes it goes, 'Woosh.' Sometimes it sounds like a howitzer and really shakes the windows. But that's not what's really bad. What's really bad is this noxious cloud of yellow smoke. We asked the head of safety if he'd want his children breathing that, and he said absolutely not."
The company has the appropriate state and federal permits to conduct the burns, Huber says. "It's all within regulations," he says. "Right now, officially, the prescribed way to dispose of leftover propellant is open burning."

A system of closed burning is in the works, Huber says, and eventually the open fires will cease.

What remains to be seen is how the people of Union Foothills Estates will be able to get to and from their homes.

So far, Griswold says, representatives of myriad agencies--the state Highway and Land departments, CAP and Maricopa County--have tromped around the land seeking a solution. The neighborhood's not exactly keeping its illegal road a secret--as if it could.

"They agreed what we were doing was illegal," Griswold says. "But they said they'd let us keep on doing it" until a solution can be found.

Huber says Universal Propulsion is willing to cut a road across the state land for the homeowners to use, if the Land Department will allow it. But Bill Foster of the Land Department says if the homeowners want a permanent, legal road across the trust land they will have to pay as much as $25,000 an acre for the right of way.

The subdivision's legal access is still Seventh Avenue, Foster says, but the Land Department is willing to negotiate another arrangement. "I've told them we will be more than happy to arrive at a reasonable solution," Foster says.

Using Seventh Avenue would require building a bridge across the CAP canal, Griswold says, and neither the county nor the state is eager to foot the bill for that. "I think they said it would cost $400,000 to put a bridge across the canal," he says.

The logical alternative is a road across the trust land, Griswold says, but it does not seem just that the homeowners should have to pay for a new road when it was the state and CAP that cut off their old one.

"The way they've been talking, they want us to buy the land," he says. "Well, there was a road in here and they blocked it with the canal."
Now the state will have to come up with a solution.
"We're waiting for them to make a decision," Griswold says. "We'll have to accept anything they give us."