County officials assured Sonoita-area residents that they plan to resume converting native dirt roads in Eastern Santa Cruz County during a meeting last week at which residents sought clarification on the county’s plans and expressed frustration with the local government’s efforts at communication.
The project, which involves surfacing dirt roads with a process known as chip seal, began with a few roads in 2019. But after crews stopped working on the roads halfway through, it led to confusion and concerns among local residents about why the project was left unfinished and what it meant moving forward.
Several residents worried that the project was stopped as a result of complaints from a few individuals about not wanting paved roads in the area. However, County Manager Jennifer St. John said that a number of factors played a role in the county’s decision to interrupt the project.
“I believe we received two complaints that I know of, but that’s not necessarily why we stopped the project,” St. John told the NI. “You have to have all these things in line – the right equipment, the right weather. In addition, we want the feedback from the public, so all of that just didn’t align properly.”
During the public meeting at the Sonoita fairgrounds last Thursday, county officials invited local residents to express their doubts and complaints about the project in order to move forward collectively.
For many, it was a chance to demand better communication between the county and the public, as the community was caught off guard by the sudden plans to begin and suddenly stop road repairs.
Sonoita resident Jean-Michel Varlet voiced his own frustration to the NI: “I don’t understand. Isn’t it that you consult with people first, and then decide?”
Like Varlet, several others insisted that the county would now need more funds to resume the chip-seal project, since the improvements made earlier to a few roads had already deteriorated as a result of recent weather conditions.
Tina Hamilton, who has lived in Sonoita for the past 10 years, said one of the worst examples was Frazier Drive – one of the roads that was left unfinished last year.
“The work that was done was great, but then it was stopped and we had snow and rain, and it washed it all out again,” Hamilton told the NI. “It looks the same or worse than what it was before they started working on it.”
Another woman voiced the same frustration during the meeting, adding that Frazier Drive “isn’t maintained now and you haven’t maintained it since the big rains in November. It’s the worst I’ve ever had.”
Public Works Director Jesus Valdez insisted that money hadn’t been wasted, as they would be able to quickly get the project back up. He added that they would try to address Frazier Drive within a week and continue the rest of the project in April.
Most of the people present at the meeting appeared to be in favor of chip-sealing the roads, including Varlet, Hamilton and fellow resident Mike Rocheford.
“Less mud and less dust,” Rocheford put it succinctly.
As for the two expressions of opposition that the county received, Supervisor Bruce Bracker said, people were concerned about losing the rural feeling of the area, and feared it would facilitate speeding in the area.
But officials explained that chip seal – a process that consists of surfacing a road with a thin layer of asphalt and gravel – has a different finish than the regular asphalt coating commonly used in urban areas.
Bracker added that now is the perfect time to convert the dirt roads, after the county received full funding from the state’s Highway User Revenue Fund. And he said the chip-sealing would make it less expensive to maintain the roads in the long run.
“If the state starts taking that money off the table, these plans start shrinking,” he said. “Once we chip seal, we’re not sending someone out here four times a year to maintain (the road).”
Moving forward, Sonoita residents asked that the county improve its communication with the public regarding the plans, setbacks and continued maintenance of the roads.
“They can’t come all the time to look at it, so we are the ones a little responsible to say, ‘There’s a pothole, here’s a picture, so come and fix it,” said resident Elyane Rocheford.