In a special meeting on Tuesday, July 19, the Gila River Indian Community's City Council decided to send the decision over the Loop 202 freeway to its community in a public vote, according to Gila River Indian Community spokeswoman Alia Maisonet.
"They felt like this was bigger than the 17 of them," Maisonet said. "This impacts the community and it should go to a vote by the people."
The decision came after the community's Transportation Technical Team presented an updated report on the South Mountain Freeway.
"It was basically a report on the reservation alignment, provided by the Arizona Department of Transportation," Maisonet said. "It was the study they did for us at our request. It included the various impacts, including the environmental, economic, the cultural and the wildlife impacts the freeway has on the land. They provided a report on all those facts and, ultimately, the council opted to send it to referendum."
Maisonet said the Transportation Technical Team's law office has up to 90 days to provide referendum language back to the Gila River City Council. Once that language is chosen the council will set a date for the election.
The decision comes after years of debate over the South Mountain Freeway. The state's original plan called for a deep cut through South Mountain for the freeway that would align with Pecos Road. Many homes and buildings would also be torn down as part of the plan.
Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio says he worked in the past to gather a group of concerned citizens to urge the state to discuss an alternative with the Gila River Indian Community.
"From that the community said they would entertain a proposal and everything started happening," DiCiccio said. "A year ago there was a zero percent chance. The freeway was going to be built on Pecos. Now, the community has a 50-50 chance of getting it moved."
Chad Blostone, a co-chair of the group DiCiccio brought together, said he's happy with the news. Blostone is a member of the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee and a board member of the Foothills Homeowners Association, which would lose land if the freeway was placed on the Pecos Road alignment.
"I think it means that there's still a possibility that the Gila Community will decide that this road on their community is good news to them," Blostone said. "In doing so, that reduces the impact of the road to the Ahwatukee community. It's possible still that the impact that road will have will be significantly reduced by the Gila Community choosing to place it on their land and enjoy all the economic benefits that they'll see with the road placed on their land.
"As long as the Gila River Indian Community is still looking at it, which they are, then there's that opportunity for us to mitigate some of the very serious effects on our community. Anything they're willing to talk about is good for us."
Peggy Neely, a candidate for Phoenix mayor and former chair of Maricopa Association of Governments, said this move is something she has always been pushing for.
"I'm really excited to see this being finalized," Neely said. "This is a huge win not only for Ahwatukee, but for the region. This is something that needed to happen. I'm very excited to hear we were able to get to the terms that we can move forward with."
Though the council's move is good news, DiCiccio warns there is still a long ways to go.
"We're still a long ways away, but we're a lot further than we've ever been at finding a mutual solution that everyone wins," he said. "The taxpayers can win because it's less expensive. The mountain gets saved. All the homes and businesses along Pecos don't have to be torn apart. I have to warn, there will be finality after this vote and our community will finally have an answer."
DiCiccio said the city of Phoenix has no control over what eventually happens. The decision lies with the Gila River Indian Community and with the state of Arizona.
"All we can do as a community is act as one voice," DiCiccio said. "That's all the power we've got."
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