Residents worry huge development plans could turn Rio Rico into mining town

RIO RICO — Andrew Jackson’s plans are huge, even by the big-city standards of Tucson or Phoenix.The major Santa Cruz County landowner is pushing a 9-mile-long, mixed-use project on both sides of Interstate 19 that could spur commercial and industrial investment across this unincorporated community 60 miles south of Tucson.His transformative plan includes 18 separate parcels and more than 3,550 acres strung along the Santa Cruz River, much of it currently zoned for ranching and covered with emerald green farm fields and thickets of mesquite.Jackson wants the property rezoned to allow for “a major economic center providing education, employment, commercial and housing opportunities,” including hotel rooms, restaurants, retail stores, offices, railroad facilities and even a community college with student housing.

People are also reading…

But a growing group of residents is rallying against the project, in large part because of who they think it’s really going to benefit: South32, an Australian mining giant with plans for a $1.7 billion zinc and manganese mine in the mountains outside of Patagonia.“We’re about to lose everything. If we let them in one inch, they’re going to take 500 miles,” said Catherine Itule, a third-generation resident of Southern Arizona who has lived in Rio Rico most of her life. “This whole place will become a complete disaster area. I know what happens to mining towns.”South32 officials have not yet said where they might build the support facilities for their proposed “next-generation” Hermosa mine, only that they are committed to locating them somewhere in the rural county to “maximize the benefits of the project” for the people living there.“We are currently evaluating multiple commercial locations along the I-19 corridor in Santa Cruz County for our planned Integrated Remote Operating Center,” from which the mine’s automated equipment will be run, said South32 Hermosa Project President Pat Risner in a written statement.

Signs guard the lands just south of Palo Parado Road near the I-19 interchange. The section of land is among the few parcels on the west side of the highway that are part of a proposed mixed-use development stretching for miles along the Santa Cruz River valley.

Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

The company has also chosen the county for a production facility to make battery-grade manganese, Risner said.Jackson’s original zoning proposal referenced Rio Rico possibly hosting a training center and operation facilities for one or more mines, without mentioning South32 by name. At recent public meetings about his plans, he has talked about a major employer looking to set up shop in the area, but he has declined to say who that might be.His sweeping proposal was first submitted to the county in March, then resubmitted in May, but many Rio Rico residents didn’t find out about it until mid-June, when public notices began appearing on fences and in the mailboxes of homes immediately adjacent to the proposed development.Itule thinks that was done by design.“Those (notices) were so low to the ground, the cockroaches couldn’t even read them,” she said. “I don’t like how shady and in the dark and opaque this is. They’re trying to pull a fast one, really.”Of course, almost any county effort to spur development along the I-19 corridor would have to be made with Jackson in mind, since he owns nearly all of the vacant land adjacent to the highway.“Believe it or not, he pretty much owns all of Rio Rico,” said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Rudy Molera.Even the San Cayetano Mountains that loom over the eastern edge of the community belong to Jackson’s company, Baca Float #3, LLC.

Devin Randolph, from the back porch of his home of more than 40 years, talks about the proposed mixed-use development along the Santa Cruz River west of his house in Rio Rico on Thursday.

Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

Sudden surpriseTwo days before the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission met in Nogales on June 22 to review his proposal, Jackson hosted an informational meeting for residents at the community center in Rio Rico.So many people showed up that he had to move the event outside to a nearby ramada, where a portable sound system was brought in so people could hear what he had to say.“I think it just took people by surprise,” said local resident Beth Pirl, who first heard about the proposal less than a week before the planning commissioners were set to vote on it. “What is this and why is it moving so quickly?”Jackson could not be reached for comment.During his presentation to the planning commission last month, he indicated that the plans for his land along I-19 grew out of a meeting he was invited to several years ago with county leaders, school district officials and that major employer he has so far declined to name.“We think it’s a fantastic project, and we’re very proud of it,” Jackson said of his proposal, though he admitted to making some “unforced errors” while rolling it out to the public.Their recent hours-long question-and-answer session outside the community center went especially poorly.“The meeting we had was not the one we prepared for, and we were not at all prepared for the meeting we had,” Jackson told the planning commissioners. “Nobody understood it, and we didn’t explain it very well. But we stood up for four hours and heard everybody’s concerns.”The result was a flurry of last-minute changes to the proposal. Jackson eliminated any reference to mining and agreed to establish an open-space easement through the entire project to preserve the Santa Cruz River and the riparian area surrounding it, which is bracketed by the interstate and an important rail corridor between the U.S. and Mexico.“I think you’ll find that all of the people that reached out to us, called us, emailed us and asked for a meeting we met with and we have adopted all their concerns,” Jackson said. “I think that’s going to satisfy most of the criticism, unless the criticism is just no growth at all.”

Ed Pirl walks a makeshift bridge spanning the Santa Cruz River near Rio Rico Drive, in the area being proposed for an extensive mixed-use development.

Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

Digging inThe endless, small-town tug-of-war over the virtues of growing is certainly part of the fight now unfolding in Rio Rico, but the loudest concerns seem to revolve around a potential mining operation.Opponents of the idea are already painting nightmarish visions of heavy ore trucks and rock-filled train cars rumbling through town to a processing facility that is belching smoke into the air and chemicals into the river.“That’s a big concern to a lot of us,” Ed Pirl said.He and Beth are still pretty new to Rio Rico. They moved to the community from Florida in 2021, after a nationwide search led them to the natural beauty, favorable weather, rural lifestyle and seemingly secure water supply of the Santa Cruz Valley.“We didn’t want to live in a big city or suburbia,” Beth Pirl explained. “I certainly don’t want the character and nature of this area changed.”But she acknowledged that there are “different constituencies” in Rio Rico, including some who would welcome almost any project that might bring some revenue and better-paying jobs to the community.South32 is promising the single largest investment in the history of Santa Cruz County, assuming its mine gets approved.The proposed Hermosa project is now under federal review as part of an Obama-era program aimed at streamlining the permitting process for critical infrastructure. It’s the first mine to be accepted into that program, because it will produce two minerals crucial to the production of large-capacity batteries for renewable-energy storage.But even with a fast-tracked process, federal regulators do not expect to wrap up their review of Hermosa until mid 2026, according to a timetable announced on Wednesday.In the meantime, a coalition of environmental groups is already suing to block the mine and several other mineral exploration projects in the Patagonia Mountains.On the FloatThe Rio Rico property has a tangled and controversial history of its own.Jackson’s holdings are the remnants of a 100,000-acre grant made to the Baca family in 1863 in exchange for an older Spanish land grant in northern New Mexico that was taken from them before the Mexican-American War.Baca Float No. 3, as the 100,000-acre square came to be known, covered most of the Santa Cruz Valley from Tubac to the southern edge of present-day Rio Rico, but its legal status remained unsettled for decades even as its ownership changed hands.It took a 1914 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court to cement the legitimacy of the grant and several more years of litigation to sort out its exact location and rightful owners, none of whom actually lived there.By then, homesteaders occupied the property, some of them for a generation. Evictions were ordered for almost 250 settlers and their families, most of them Hispanic and many of them immigrants from Sonora.Among those forced off the land were Opata and Yaqui Indians who had fled north to escape the genocidal policies of the Mexican government, according to a Tumacacori historic resource study by the National Park Service.Jackson and his wife, Colleen, acquired the remnants of the land grant and moved onto the property in Rio Rico about 9 years ago, registering the enterprise with state under the name Baca Float #3, LLC.“Owning a Spanish and Mexican land grant is a mixed blessing,” Jackson told the planning commissioners with a laugh. “It has a lot of history, it has a lot of legal rights, it has a lot of legal obligations, and it costs a lot to maintain it.”As it turns out, controlling such a large and vital slice of Rio Rico also comes with an outsized role in planning for the future of the entire town.“We have tried to be good stewards all along the way,” Jackson said during last month’s planning meeting. “There’s a fine line (between) protecting these private property rights and also doing what’s in the best interest of the community and the growth in the community.”

A panorama image from three separate shots shows the Santa Cruz River valley, the riparian zone and nearby land that would be affected by an extensive mixed-use project being proposed for miles along the waterway in Rio Rico on Thursday.

Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

Some assurancesThe rezoning plan for I-19 in Rio Rico was originally scheduled for a vote by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors this Tuesday.That hearing has since been canceled for “further consideration of the request in light of public comments received,” according to an email from Frank Dillon, the county’s community development director.Though the board is slated to meet again on July 18, Supervisor Molera does not expect the zoning proposal to show up on an agenda again until August at the earliest.Frankly, he said, they could all use the extra time. Based on the reaction so far in Rio Rico, it’s clear that the county needs to take a closer look at the proposal and “proceed with caution,” Molera said.Efforts to encourage development along I-19 are nothing new, according to the Nogales-born, four-term supervisor. Molera said that part of Rio Rico was identified as a retail, commercial and industrial corridor in a comprehensive plan first adopted by the county in 2004 and renewed in 2016.In December, the county’s three-member board of supervisors approved a resolution “promoting economic development and land use” along the interstate in Rio Rico.Then on June 6, the supervisors unanimously adopted a new code that seemed tailor-made for Jackson and his proposal: Henceforth, the county would allow so-called “specific zoning plans,” through which wholesale changes could be made to existing land-use designations, but only for projects within Rio Rico’s I-19 corridor.Molera said he would like to see the community continue to grow, especially if it leads to new career options beyond the Border Patrol, local government or the produce distribution warehouses that now represent the county’s largest source of private employment. He thinks they can make it easier to “keep families together” by giving young people more educational and employment opportunities close to home.As for South32, Molera said, “we want those good jobs to go here, not Pima County,” but only if the project is safe.“If it’s going to be something that’s going to jeopardize our health and safety, I’m not going to want it. I will not allow our health and safety to be put in danger,” he said.Incoming County Manager Jesus Valdez offered similar assurances.“We won’t support any mining along the Santa Cruz River or near our residents,” and that includes the processing of ore, he said. “As a county, we have to protect our residents and our river.”From the topDevin Randolph has lived in the hills overlooking the Santa Cruz Valley for 42 years.During that time, he and his wife, Gail, have seen the view from their front yard change as Rio Rico more than doubled in size. Where there used to be open desert and a few scattered buildings trailing south into Mexico, now they look out over a jumble of produce warehouses that form the backbone of the county’s economy, at least for the moment.“We’re not totally against growth, but it’s got to be the right kind of growth,” the retired Nogales art teacher said. “They’re trying to turn this community into a sacrificial lamb on the altar of green energy. This is all about the mine that’s going in in Patagonia.”Randolph accused those pushing that project of trying to “put a pretty picture on it” by promising new restaurants and retail development, more money for the schools and “six-figure jobs” he said would probably just end up going to mine workers from out of town anyway.As far as he’s concerned, no amount of perks are worth the price.“We don’t want to see our community polluted. We don’t want to see it ravaged,” Randolph said. “We are primarily a country agrarian area, and we want to keep it that way.”
Contact reporter Henry Brean at or 573-4283. On Twitter: @RefriedBrean

Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!

See the full article on Arizona zoning regulations, or, read more Arizona real estate investing news. It’s up to you!