Strife in the Stronghold

Monastery's plans to exceed height restrictions with hilltop church and bell tower rile the locals.

"The Dragoon Mountains have been a home to many over the centuries. In recent history, Cochise, the famed Apache Chief made his home in the Dragoons and used his Stronghold for defense and to launch offensive actions in protection of his people. He negotiated peace with General Howard and they designated the boundaries of the Chiricahua Reservation while camped in the Dragoons. Cochise died and was buried within his beloved Stronghold.

A prominent peak in the Dragoons was named after the first Anglo rancher in the Canyon, John Rockfellow. It is a magnificent granite dome that can be seen for miles and miles.

Currently the Coronado National Forrest owns a majority of the Dragoons and deep within Cochise Stronghold Canyon is a public campground. The Cochise Stronghold receives tens of thousands of visitors annually.

Hikers, rock climbers, campers, picnickers, birdwatchers, horseback riders and lovers of natural beauty all make their way to the Dragoons. Sacred religious ceremonies continue to be held in many parts of the Mountains (from weddings to Apache Coming Of Age ceremonies)."

--Karen Weilacher, in a letter to the Dormition of the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Monastery

A potential lawsuit may have been averted when opposing groups tentatively resolved differences over a Greek Orthodox Monastery's plans to build a church and bell tower atop a foothill at the base of Rockfellow Dome, on the east side of Cochise Stronghold.

Those objecting to the church and bell tower on the hill argue that the Stronghold, in Cochise County, is a sacred place to many, who view the magnificent rock formations as not only beautiful but as having spiritual value.

Karen Weilacher works in L.A., where she keeps an apartment, but she calls Cochise Stronghold home, staying in a cabin she owns with her mother and stepfather whenever she has time off from her job as a studio lighting technician. The trio have owned the property there since 1985 but Weilacher has been coming to the Stronghold regularly since 1976, drawn there, like many others, not only for the tranquility and beauty, but also spiritual growth.

In early May of this year, she received an email from David Lloyd about the monastery's plans at the base of well-known, and revered, Rockfellow Dome.

Lloyd is a local businessman who lives in nearby Richland Ranchettes and helped to write the Mid-Sulphur Springs Valley Community Plan adopted by Cochise County in 1999. Sunsites area residents worked with Cochise County Planning and Zoning and the county attorney's office four years in drafting this plan.

Lloyd was upset about the monastery's plans to build on 481 acres of private land that it purchased last year. The Cochise County Planning and Zoning Commission had granted the monastery permission to exceed the height restriction of a maximum of 30 feet as stated in the Mid-Sulphur Springs Valley Community Plan.

Lloyd, who has lived in the area since 1979, said "never in our wildest dreams, did we ever imagine this happening" when the community plan was drafted. Weilacher was aghast that county planners had given preliminary approval to height variances.

"I saw the hill. I looked at what the commissioners had approved. There were 40-foot height modifications, 30-foot height modifications, 20-foot height modifications, 10-foot height modifications--not a single building on the property was going to be less than 30 feet," she said.

Weilacher promptly filed an appeal of the planners' action on behalf of a group of about 20 area property owners that quickly organized and named itself The Dragoon Mountains Defense Committee.

The monastery also filed an appeal, objecting to a stipulation that permits must be obtained from the county for every structure built. The appeals were scheduled to be heard by the Cochise County Board of Supervisors.

The committee opened a savings account to accept contributions to help in their appeal and in the first week alone received about $1,000 in donations. Weilacher and the committee then bought ads in local newspapers, circulated fliers, sent email requests for help and launched a grassroots effort to stop the monks from building their church and bell tower on top of a hill.

Though members of the committee have said they are not opposed to construction of the monastery, they object to the prominent placement of the church as well as the height modifications.

"People are drawn here for its beauty, its vistas and views, tens of thousands of tourists drive down this road every year just to look at the Stronghold," Weilacher said. "To be good neighbors and good stewards of the land, it's really important that these people compromise and build within the compatability of the environment, instead of a dominant architectual design."

Both the monastery and the defense committee hired lawyers, and on July 3 a four-hour meeting was held between the two parties, with attorneys present, in an attempt to resolve their issues before a Cochise County Board of Supervisors' hearing.

A verbal compromise was reached and a resolution is currently being drafted into a written agreement that will be presented to the Board of Supervisors at 2 p.m. on August 6, in Bisbee.

In a recent letter Weilacher sent to the Dormition of the Theotokos Greek Orthadox Monastery, she thanked the group for working on a compromise and tried to inform the church about Cochise Stronghold, hoping it would better understand what all the hoopla is about.

She said if there is any money left in the defense committee's fund after this issue is settled, the group has decided to use that money to work with Cochise County on a ridge-top building ordinance.

A representative of the monastery, Father Nektarios Arvanitakis, seems puzzled by what has occurred. He said the monks do not want, or like, the publicity. Concerned with how he and the monastery has been portrayed in recent news coverage, he declined to make any comment to The Weekly.

Eve Searle and her husband Gerry own Grapevine Canyon Ranch, a guest ranch near Cochise Stronghold visited by people from all over the world. Even with the verbal compromise, she remains concerned. Searle says most of the ranch's guests are from overseas and come to the ranch because of the "historic and beautiful scenery" there. "They don't want to see a monastery on a hill," she said, adding that initial plans to build a church and bell tower atop a 120-foot hill is "an appalling idea."

"We have no objection to buildings up to 30 feet high, or the monastery itself, but to build higher is in contradiction to the community plan," she said. Searle worries that the monastery might erect a tall cross, which in her opinion would mar the scenery.

Searle posted a bulletin about the monastery's plans on Grapevine Canyon Ranch's Web site, urging the ranch's clients to send a letter of concern to Cochise County Planning and Zoning. Among the responses: "Can't imagine why they would want to build in that particular area--reminds me of the monasteries at Meterora in Greece--perched on the very pinnacles of sharp mountains."

"We owe it to the community of Sunsites to take into consideration the plan they worked on," said Dan Coxworth, a Cochise County planner.

"I think the community has a legitimate concern. Cochise Stronghold is a beautiful place and the potential of building something big on top of a hill is a legitimate concern."

Coxworth agrees with Weilacher and others who feel there is a need for a new county ordinance that would restrict building on top of mountains. "We're one of the only counties in the state that does not have a ridge-top building ordinance in place."

Lupe Gooday, vice-chairman of the Fort Sills Chiricahua Apache tribe in Okalahoma, says his people stand firm with the community's opposition to building on the hill. "They have 481 acres," he said, "Why do they have to put it on top of the hill?"

Gooday said the area is sacred to Apaches and that when the tribe was given four acres in 1991, by the late Richard Shaw, a lifetime resident of the Stronghold, they held ceremonies there to bless the land. Shaw left the land to the Apaches in his will, wishing to return at least one small part of the Stronghold to descendants of people who once sought refuge there.

Randy Redhawk has lived in the Stronghold for 12 years. For the past two years he has been caretaker of the Apaches' four acres. Redhawk said he objects to the monastery's building on the hilltop because it is "very visible" and would "obstruct the view of the mountain."

"Everyone talks about the Stronghold being a spiritual place," Redhawk says. "Well, part of the spiritual aspect of this place is the mountain itself. It would be like building a church in front of a church."

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