Angel Valley use permit denied

Verde Indpendent, Arizona/December 23, 2010

Cottonwood - The Yavapai County Planning and Zoning Commission has rejected Angel Valley's second attempt to bring into compliance its religious uses with an opportunity to lease to third parties.

The commission voted 2-to-6 Wednesday when asked to approve a minor community plan amendment and use permit. The commission action is a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which makes the final decision.

During an earlier application Aug. 18, the commission told the retreat operators that a conditional use permit would offer the public more opportunity for comment, while they turned down a recommendation for a change of zoning to Planned Area Development for the same use. That application was withdrawn before it went to the Board of Supervisors, which referred it back to the commission.

The use permit for commercial activities would have applied to only five of the properties, which include cabins, dining room and related spaces, that might be rented to third parties.

Land Use Supervisor Boyce Macdonald Macdonald said that one year ago staff visited Angel Valley (at the time of the James Ray sweat lodge deaths there). At that time, owners Michael and Amayra Hamilton were willing to come to the table and get into compliance.

Angel Valley, originally called Deer Valley, is a private island within the Coconino National Forest and includes 25 properties. All but three belong to the ministry. The operators wanted a conditional use permit to allow a commercial use on five of the properties.

The commission had a number of questions.

Curt Lindner asked, "How do you separate religious and commercial uses?"

Macdonald responded that the county has no interest in their religious affiliation, by which they are exempt. "When we get into lodging, that goes beyond the religious uses."

Asked about taxes, with a potential change of use, Macdonald referred the question to the County Assessor's Office.

The commissioners wondered if the religious exemption could be a "foot in the door" to allow much larger commercial operation on retreat land throughout Yavapai County. "I hope we don't see that," said Gene Kernan.

On the matter of expansion of facilities as proposed for Angel Valley, Curt Garner said he would rather see compliance before expansion, rather than permit expansion as part of bringing the operation into compliance. The operators said they would like to increase their facilities from a capacity of 46 to 69.

The owners were asked pointedly, by Commissioner Curt Lindner, whether they would continue all of the uses like those in which James Ray took part.

Amayra Hamilton said the Angel Valley Ministry wanted to, "focus on what we do and carefully scrutinize others who want to come in and absolutely look at what they are doing. If it doesn't feel right, we won't allow it."

Michael Hamilton added, "We will absolutely have no more sweat lodges while we are there. We have learned that lesson and we apologize to you for having to experience that."

Asked why they allow third parties to rent the facilities at Angel Valley, Amayra Hamilton answered, "We have made quite an investment in the property to do our work. The people who come to us to hold retreats all are working in the same field. We are all related."

Again, Michael Hamilton added, "We would like to have the retreat to use exclusively but we are not there, yet. We have offered three to 10 events each year, but we were catapulted into doing more things than ever before, after James Ray. We will not have as many third party events as in the past."

The only audience member was Steve Kim, president of the Tao Fellowship, who, this week, signed a stipulation on the use of their 160 acres in a residential area to help resolve the Tao Fellowship land use violation with the county.

Macdonald said there are six major retreat or camp properties on which the county has similar issues.

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