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Francisco Grande plans major expansion project

CASA GRANDE — The Francisco Grande resort has big plans to expand in the next few years.

The Casa Grande Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval by a 5 to 2 vote of a plan by Francisco Grande to develop a mix of residential, commercial, hospitality, open space, office space and recreational campus space on its 663-acre property near Montgomery Road and Gila Bend Highway.

Commissioners David Snider and Dennis Dugan voted against the plan, citing concerns about several exceptions Francisco Grande was requesting and past flooding on the property.

The owners want to create a walkable, multi-use community that expands the property’s current uses as a hotel and golf resort and as the home of the Barca Soccer Academy and ASU Preparatory Academy, according to a report given to the commission.

“We’re super excited about the possibilities,” said Linda Morales from The Planning Center, the company planning the project for Francisco Grande. “We think this could be a really unique, special place.”

Courtesy of Francisco Grande (2017) 

The Francisco Grande resort (2017)

The 144-acre high-density residential section would include a mix of detached and attached single-family homes, medium-density residential and multifamily residential. The 62-acre recreational campus area includes ASU Prep and Barca Academy and an expansion of the existing dorms for both. The 35-acre commercial and 83-acre mixed use areas would include space for multifamily residential, offices and small businesses.

The project may also expand the existing hotel on 36 acres of the property.

Most of the 190-acre open space is to be taken up by the existing golf course and several new trails along with some low-lying, flood-prone areas. The exact number of homes, offices and commercial space hasn’t been determined yet.

Dugan raised concerns about areas of the property that have been flooded by the Santa Cruz Wash in the past. The area has flooded at least twice, in 1983 and 1993, with more than 2 feet of water, since he has lived in Casa Grande, Dugan said.

“What has the city done to make sure that it doesn’t flood again?” he asked.

Commission Chair Ken Miller pointed out that the property is privately owned and it is the property owner’s responsibility to control or mitigate any flooding on the property.

City Planning and Development Director Paul Tice explained that the site does have several areas that fall within the 500-year and 100-year floodplains. The federal, state and city governments allow a property owner to build in the 500-year floodplain without having to raise or protect buildings from a flood.

However, a property owner who wants to build in a 100-year floodplain does have to show that they have raised any buildings out of the floodplain before the construction is approved, Tice said.

A property owner can also ask the federal government for a conditional letter of map revision or a letter of map revision to remove the area from the floodplain by modifying the flow of water on the property. However, if a property owner gets permission to change the flow of flood water on a property, it cannot change how the water flows off of the property onto another property, he said.

Morales said the company has taken an in-depth look at the flooding problems on the site. The plan is to have most of the development take place in the 500-year flood zone and leave most of the 100-year flood zone as open space for the community to enjoy. The company would develop flood channels to help control some of the flood water in the areas where it was needed.

“We may need to raise some areas,” she said.

The commission recommended the changes to the City Council.

Dugan asked Morales if she would let her parents build a home in one of the flood prone areas of the project.

Morales said she would not, unless there was a clear plan in place to protect the home and the property had been raised out of the floodplain. Most developers can’t sell a home that has been built in a 100-year flood zone without doing some mitigation and without a letter of map revision, she said. The need for and cost of flood insurance is a deterrent to most homebuyers.

Snider raised concerns about several exemptions to the planned area development zoning Francisco Grande was asking for the project. Those exemptions involve the residential areas of the project and include limiting the lot sizes to 5,000 square feet, basing the minimum lot width on the approved setbacks and width of the housing product, reducing side yard setbacks in some areas from 10 feet to 5 feet, reducing the front yard of some residential areas from 20 feet to 10 feet to the livable area or side garage or 20 feet to the entrance of a front-loading garage and reducing the backyard setback from the alley from 20 feet to 10 feet for garages that open onto an alley.

Snider said he was “uncomfortable” with the exemptions and wasn’t sure “where those exemptions would take us.” He said he would like the applicant to do more work with the commission on those exemptions as the project was developed.

The commission also recommended approval of:

  • Extending hours for the city’s one marijuana dispensary from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and allowing the business to be open on Sunday.
  • A boat and RV storage facility on West Gila Bend Highway.
  • Two model home complexes in the Mission Royale and Arroyo Grande subdivisions.

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CG mom hopes to be a voice for children who can't speak

CASA GRANDE -- Wyatt James was nearly 4 years old before he could speak the words “mama” and “dada.”

Now a little past 4, he speaks primarily through gestures and sign language, although he has the vocabulary comprehension of a 7-year-old.

Wyatt has childhood apraxia of speech, a rare motor speech disorder in which children are unable to coordinate their lips, tongue, jaw and other mouth muscles to form words.

With national Apraxia Awareness Day coming up on Thursday, his mother, Elizabeth James of Casa Grande, is hoping to educate others about the often misunderstood condition.

“I want to bring some awareness to the community,” James said. “Because apraxia is so rare, people often don’t understand it.”

Until a few years ago, James had never heard of childhood apraxia of speech.

But when Wyatt wasn’t hitting normal speech milestones like other toddlers, she knew something was wrong.

“We thought it might be a speech delay, and we did take him to therapy, but we noticed that when he tried to speak, words didn’t come out,” James said.

Although children with apraxia understand language and know what they want to say, they have difficulty with the sequenced movements necessary for speech, according to Apraxia Kids, a national nonprofit organization that provides support to children with the condition.

An estimated 3% to 5% of preschoolers have the condition, which is often misdiagnosed because it is rare and misunderstood, the organization says on its website.

A key characteristic of the disorder is that children grimace when attempting to form words, but intensive speech therapy helps them find their voice, James said.

“The only proven treatment is speech therapy, which is quite costly and extends over many years,” she said. “Through determination and hard work, children continue through their struggles to learn the skill of speaking, which comes effortlessly to other children.”


Wyatt James


Wyatt James

Wyatt was about 2 when his parents began taking him to speech therapy. He was diagnosed a few months later and has since begun a therapy program specifically designed to help children with the rare condition.

Although he can now speak a few words, he communicates primarily through sign language and gesturing. But as he continues with therapy, the family hopes that his vocabulary of spoken words will grow.

“He can say words like ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and when he finally said ‘mama’ at the age of 4, it was amazing,” James said. “For the first few years of his life, Wyatt had no voice. Other kids, when they start talking, they have that little baby voice that as a parent, you get to hear. He never had that baby voice.”

Communicating with others outside of his family is still a challenge for Wyatt. When he started preschool last August, he had some trouble making friends.

“Most of his words are still unintelligible and that’s frustrating for him,” James said. “He’s a little comedian and he loves music and dancing, but it’s hard to make friends because children don’t always understand him and his style of communication is sometimes mistaken for aggression.”

Talking with Wyatt’s preschool teachers to explain the disorder helped the adults at the school better understand, she said.

Wyatt will complete one more year of preschool before entering kindergarten in the 2021-22 school year.

As he continues with speech therapy and grows older, he will learn to speak more words.

“The therapy is wonderful,” James said. “With apraxia, kids do eventually learn to speak. But there are so many variables that there is really no timeline for when he will be speaking in sentences — but he shows promise.”

Apraxia, however, is something Wyatt will always live with.

“Apraxia doesn’t go away but with therapy, kids can learn to conquer it,” James said.

To observe Apraxia Awareness Day, James is hoping for proclamations to be signed by city and county officials.

She also wants to offer support and understanding for other parents whose children are struggling with apraxia or other rare conditions.

“I want other parents to understand that if they’re dealing with apraxia or something like it, don’t give up even if it means a lot of work advocating for your child and teaching others to understand it. There are resources out there even for these rare, hard-to-diagnose conditions,” she said.

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Area restaurants ready for Monday opening

CASA GRANDE — When the doors to the dining room reopen at 6:30 a.m. Monday, the staff at downtown eatery CookEJar will be eager to greet customers and seat them at a table.

“We’ve missed seeing our customers every day,” said CookEJar owner Mary Ann Versluis. “We’re looking forward to seeing them again.”

Monday is the day restaurants are allowed to reopen their dining rooms, under certain social distancing rules. Salons and barbers reopened on Friday.

But returning customers will notice some changes at some of their favorite eateries.

Oscar Perez/PinalCentral 

Sandy Burkholder, left, Ron Burkholder and Bud Bailly have lunch Friday May 8, 2020 at the Cook-E-Jar. It had been two months since they had dined at the restaurant.

At CookEJar, about 50% of the tables were removed to adapt to new social distancing requirements.

“Tables are all 6 feet apart,” Versluis said. “Having dine-in customers will be better than having to rely on take-out, but when we open, we will be at about 50% occupancy and that’s if the customers come back.”

CookEJar is one of several area restaurants that remained open for take-out service during the coronavirus pandemic closure.

“We’ve been selling a lot of sweets,” Versluis said. “And I’ve been baking a lot more and coming up with some new recipes.”

Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar on Cacheris Court was also open for takeout the past few weeks.

When the dining room reopens on Monday, owner Piyush Patel said that the restaurant will have plenty of space for social distancing now that the arcade and gaming center have been removed.

“We can use that space for dining,” Patel said.


Workers prepare the dining room at Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar in Casa Grande, which will have plenty of space for social distancing now that the arcade and gaming center have been removed.

The crew at Boston’s has been busy cleaning the entire restaurant and preparing to reopen.

When customers return, they’ll find disposable menus replacing the reusable ones, a measure that will help reduce the spread of germs. Social distancing guidelines will be followed, employees will have their temperature taken before and after every shift and surfaces will be washed with disinfecting solutions, Patel said.

“We’re excited to reopen the dining room and I think customers are excited to come back,” he said. “They’ve been calling, asking when we will reopen the dining room.”

The staff at Eva’s Fine Mexican Food restaurant in downtown Casa Grande is also eager to resume dining room service on Monday, said Manager Casey O’Brion.

“We are so grateful for all the support during these trying times and happy to be resuming business following Governor Doug Ducey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Health Services recommendations,” he said. “We are continuing to follow our strict safe practices when it comes to cleanliness and sanitation.”

Among the notable changes at Eva’s, O’Brion said, is that employees will be wearing masks and gloves.

Tables will be reorganized to meet social distancing requirements.

“We’ve also implemented symptom screening for employees prior to the start of their shift,” he said. “We have added touchless payment systems such as Apple Pay and Samsung Pay and a few hand sanitizing stations.”

Disposable menus will be used and various condiments will be issued in single-serve packaging. Salt and pepper shakers have been removed from tables but single-serve will be available.

“It’s time, Casa Grande, let’s eat,” O’Brion said.

Pinal County left out of federal reimbursement for COVID-19

FLORENCE — With a population just under 500,000, Pinal County has been overlooked for federal funding for COVID-19 relief through the U.S. CARES Act.

The Pinal County Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to have Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer look into the situation and whether Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home orders are constitutional. The counties need to know the limits of what a governor can impose on a free people, Supervisors Chairman Anthony Smith, R-Maricopa, said.

“I wasn’t going to close the county,” Supervisor Todd House, R-Apache Junction, said. “The governor kind of stepped on our toes and did that for us.”

Supervisor Mike Goodman, R-San Tan Valley, said it’s an important question not just now, but for the future. “If there’s been a violation of the Constitution, it behooves us to look into that.”

Pinal County is still awaiting federal reimbursement for expenditures related to COVID-19 while its neighbors have already received many millions. Pinal County Manager Louis Andersen told the board that as he understands it, entities with a population of 500,000 or more can deal directly with the U.S. government for relief. The most recent estimated census showed Pinal County with 462,000 people.

So far Pinal County and its taxpayers have received zero, Smith said. Meanwhile, Maricopa County has received $326 million; Pima County, $182 million; the city of Mesa, $90 million; the city of Tucson, perhaps $96 million. Phoenix also has received funds. Andersen said the state has had money to distribute for five weeks.

Andersen said the county will receive a $1 million Community Development Block Grant and the board will have a say on how it’s distributed. But the county has yet to receive funding from the CARES Act.

“There’s a lot of money this county has expended due to COVID-19, that’s what that the money is for that the governor keeps holding onto; that I want to look at as quickly as possible,” Vice Chairman Pete Rios, D-Dudleyville, said.

Supervisor Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande, also asked Volkmer to determine if county officeholders have been directed to violate their oaths of office in the governor’s directives.