BENSON — Villages at Vigneto’s Section 404 permit under the Clean Water Act has been suspended by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Villages at Vigneto, a proposed 12,000-plus-acre development by El Dorado Holdings LLC of Scottsdale near the San Pedro River south and west of Benson, was to include about 70,000 residents in a gated community resembling Tuscany, Italy.

Section 404 establishes a program to regulate the discharge of fill material into waters, including wetlands, in connection with routine construction activities.

In a June 28 letter, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Field Supervisor Jeffrey Humphries informed the Corps that the Service reviewed the impact to threatened and endangered species and their habitats and decided to reverse the 2017 decision that allowed the development to proceed.

Humphries wrote, “We are prepared to work with you to comply with the Endangered Species Act as you see fit.”

The Corps suspended its 404 permit based on the FWS reversal. In a letter, Regulatory Chief David Castanon stated, “The USFWS recission of the letter of concurrence represents changed conditions and circumstances and has caused the Corps to re-evaluate the permit. Therefore, the Corps has determined that it is in the public interest to suspend the permit.”

The company responsible for the project hopes the setback is temporary.

“We do not believe the suspension is merited as no facts or circumstances have changed that would warrant such a suspension," El Dorado Holdings said in a statement. "The permit has been in place since 2006 through multiple administrations. The Army Corps of Engineers will re-evaluate the circumstances surrounding the permit, as it has done before, and we are confident it will be reinstated again. We look forward to working with the Corps to address any questions that the agency may have.”

Environmentalists celebrated the ruling.

Tricia Gerrodette, a Sierra Vista resident who opposed the development, said, “I’m very happy that the agencies decided to make use of their extensive science and discard the political meddling that occurred in the decision-making process. An even better step would be for ACOE to move beyond permit suspension and actually revoke it. Then the process of analyzing the impacts can go through their normal channels.”

Michael Gregory, who was instrumental in establishing the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, said, “The San Pedro Riparian Area is an irreplaceable gem, under increasing threat from runaway development and climate-induced drought. It’s good to see the Corps and Fish and Wildlife Service finally doing their jobs to protect it instead of bending over backwards to please the developer.”

Villages at Vigneto was proposed as a 28,000 home and multi-use development with ponds, lakes, fountains and swimming pools near the protected San Pedro River and conservation area.

Due to its proximity to the river, a number of environmental groups filed suit against the development, FWS and the Corps in an effort to protect the habitat of listed wildlife, the river and the aquifer.

Controversy followed the decision.

Former FWS supervisor Steve Spangle issued a 2016 decision requiring a detailed biological analysis of the development’s impact on endangered species.

It later was reported that in August 2017 Spangle was advised by higher-ups to change his review; Spangle believes it came at the direction of former Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. Rescinding the review would allow the Corps to issue the permit without the lengthy analysis.

Mike Ingram, El Dorado founder and chairman, had met with Bernhardt in Montana earlier in August.

Spangle felt forced to reverse his position. He later said that he was “rolled” by higher-up political appointees. He said he used the term “rolled” to distinguish the FWS change in position “from making a policy call based on fact, as opposed to making a policy call based on politics.”

He said this was the first time in his 30-year career at FWS that he had been pressured to change an official decision. He retired from FWS four months later.