The rural neighborhood north of Willcox is almost entirely agricultural and residential. Many residents raise livestock and keep horses for riding. Arenas, where riders practice rodeo skills, dot the landscape, along with fields of alfalfa, squash, pumpkins, corn and chilies.
Considering the rural lifestyle here, some locals were shocked to learn that Tucson-based Raytheon Missile Systems leased land from one of their neighbors in 2005, set up a five-acre test site--without a special-use permit, in violation of county zoning laws--and were testing missile components.
Heidi Dillman's family moved into the neighborhood in May 2005. She says they bought the property because "this is basically a dead-end road, with only one neighbor west of us. We wouldn't have to worry about traffic."
A month after the Dillmans moved into their home, they began noticing a lot of traffic, and wondered what was going on. "It wasn't just the Raytheon employees, but their vendors as well--the propane guy, the cement guy, etc. ... I knew nobody could have THAT many vehicles."
Area residents began hearing what sounded like a cannon being fired. There were also strange lights flickering from the site on some nights.
According to Raytheon, the site was used to test a rubber seal for submarines and a missile fuse. The tests involved launching projectiles through a cannon-like metal tube, firing them with an air gun under 400-1,000 pounds of pressure.
The projectiles traveled 30-60 feet before slamming into concrete slabs and dirt mounds, Raytheon engineer Lance Fowler told the Arizona Daily Star. In another test, a projectile was launched at a rubber seal, from inside an inverted silo full of water, to determine how the seal broke.
When Cochise County's planning and zoning caught wind of what Raytheon was doing, the company was fined $300 for testing without a permit. The county fined the property owner, Dale Bennett, $1,000.
After that, the county worked with Bennett and Raytheon to bring them into compliance with the area's zoning laws. In May, the county's planning and zoning commission approved a special-use permit, and in June, the board approved an amendment allowing research and testing laboratories as a special use.
However, Vonnie Hedges--who owns 2,500 acres that border the leased land--filed an appeal against the special-use permit. Hedges, a retired school teacher and Willcox native, inherited the Black Ranch from her parents. Her grandparents purchased the ranch in the 1940s from Jack Black, the original owner, and cattle still graze the land. The original adobe ranch house still stands, and she has turned it into a ranching museum, filled with historical ranching and farming items. "I've been told this house was also once a stage stop between Willcox and Klondyke," she said.
"This Raytheon test site does not fit in with our ranching area. This loud bang frightens my horses especially," she told the Arizona Daily Star on July 12, the day after the Cochise County Board of Supervisors voted 2-1 in favor of her appeal, giving Raytheon 30 days to move their testing site.
The board's decision came after a lengthy public hearing in Bisbee on July 11, where about a dozen area residents--including myself--backed up Hedges' complaints. Those of us who spoke mostly echoed her reasons for filing the appeal. Most were concerned with noise, dust, lights at night and property values.
Raytheon spokesperson Chandra Stewart told the Wick News Service, "We understand people want to protect the community, but we support the national defense," shortly after the board's decision. The next day, she told the Star, "I think we're all a little shocked that noise and dust supersedes national defense."
When I later contacted Stewart with questions, including how Raytheon came to lease the property near Willcox, and how much the property owner was receiving for rent, she didn't answer, and instead issued this statement:
"Raytheon has identified alternate test sites and plans to remove its remaining equipment from the Willcox site by Aug. 10. The Cochise County Board of Supervisors decision does not impact any program schedules, and we remain focused on meeting our customers' requirements."
(It should also be noted that Raytheon contacted the Weekly and expressed concern that someone who publicly opposed the testing was writing this article.)
What may have done Raytheon in at the appeal hearing was that same kind of vagueness. At the hearing, Raytheon engineer Nassim Slim, for example, said he didn't know what other tests were planned for the site.
County Supervisor Paul Newman asked Slim how long Raytheon expected to use the site; Slim again stated that he did not know. When Newman pressed him, asking him if they might be there for "two years? five years? 20 years?" Slim insisted he didn't know.
What bothered Linda Cleveland, a property owner just down the road from the test site, was not only the lights, noise, dust and traffic, but that Raytheon began its work without notifying residents.
"They took this cavalier-type attitude that they don't have to tell us anything," she said at the appeal hearing.
Newman told Raytheon representatives he found it hard to believe the company was unaware they had to have a special-use permit. When Newman asked Slim why the company leased land in Cochise County, and not Pima County, the engineer answered that Raytheon couldn't find suitable land in Pima County, and that the high cost of leasing land there was prohibitive.
In response to a question from the board about how Raytheon came to lease the land, Shim Bennett, Dale's brother, said that a former high school classmate of Dale's knew that Raytheon was looking for land to rent, and had suggested to Dale the idea of leasing land to Raytheon.
When the board asked Shim Bennett if a contract had been signed, he answered, "We agreed in the form of a handshake." Dale Bennett has refused comment.
Vonnie Hedges is looking forward to the dust settling in our rural neighborhood as Raytheon packs up and moves out.
"I thank God that I live in America and have the freedom to express my opinions," she said. "I hope and pray this is something our little community can put behind us."