Activism transforms Scottsdale Desert EDGE debate into November ballot question

A picturesque view of desert vegetation that grows unobstructed by human development. (Arianna Grainey/Independent Newsmedia)

The signatures are good.

Community activists behind both the Protect Our Preserve and NoDDC campaigns provided Scottsdale City Hall more than 37,000 signatures forcing Proposition 420 onto the upcoming November ballot.

Proposition 420, if approved, will require voter approval for all commercial construction and usage of earmarked conservation dollars within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

According to Scottsdale City Clerk Carolyn Jagger as of July 26 more than 24,000 qualified local voters signed a petition to force the question on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Proponents say the signature effort is one born through the idea that all Scottsdale residents should have a say in what occurs within the precious boundaries of Preserve lands.

The beginning: a view of the scene at Scottsdale City Hall in September 2017 as opponents of the proposed, then coined, “Desert Discovery Center” came out in force to voice their frustration with the project. (File photo)

The Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve encompasses 30,000 acres of land within the rough boundaries of the Pima Road alignment to the west, McDowell Mountain Regional Park to the east, Stagecoach Road to the north and Via Linda Road alignment to the south.

While the ballot question does not mention by name the Scottsdale Desert EDGE project, proponents of the signature-gathering effort say the proposal and subsequent municipal moves is what sparked the fuel to stop the project by any means necessary.

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale unveiled its plan for a proposed desert-appreciation venue last July. The effort is helmed by Sam Campana, former mayor of Scottsdale, who is serving as executive director of the nonprofit charged with developing the Desert EDGE proposal.

Located on less than six acres just south of the established Gateway trailhead, the center includes a series of structures coined “pavilions” and might cost somewhere between $61.2 and $68.2 million to build.

The Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale has also announced a formal partnership with the Global Drylands Institute at Arizona State University, but while ASU has committed to providing staff and setting up its Drylands Institute in Scottsdale — which would include scientific apparatus, proponents say — no funding will be provided by the university.

At issue: advocates of the Desert EDGE say the Preserve itself is not enough for visitors to appreciate the McDowell Sonoran Preserve while detractors say the proposed facility — a desert-appreciation venue and research center — is nothing more than a pet project for a handful of the community’s elite.

No matter popular public opinion regarding the Desert EDGE project, voters will now decide how construction occurs within Preserve boundaries and following the official verification of signatures many close to the matter say the project is likely at a standstill.

A view of Scottsdale City Council. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Impossible made possible

Scottsdale Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield, who since her time as an elected leader has been steadfast in the assertion a public vote ought to occur prior to any construction within Preserve boundaries, says she is elated with the signature-gathering result.

“I am thrilled the signatures were sufficient to place Prop. 420, the citizen initiative to protect our McDowell Sonoran Preserve from commercial development, on the ballot,” she said.

Kathy Littlefield

“I will be voting ‘yes’ on Prop. 420 and will be encouraging others to do the same. Ever since I was elected to the city council I have always maintained that citizens should have the final say on whether or not to allow the Desert EDGE, or any commercial development, to be built inside the Preserve.”

Ms. Littlefield points out a major tenet of Prop. 420 is the idea of replacing a simple majority city council vote with a measure of the people.

“Our Preserve ordinance clearly prohibits commercial development and other incompatible activities inside the Preserve,” she said. “But an ordinance can be changed by a mere four votes on the city council. To change these rules should, I believe, require a public vote as demanded by this proposed Charter amendment.”

Anything short of the Charter amendment, Ms. Littlefield opines, would be a disservice to the residents of Scottsdale.

“Otherwise, we not only betray the trust of our citizens, but our Preserve loses its legal protections and becomes just a large expanse of open space, which could be developed at the whim of the city council majority,” she said.

Scottsdale Councilwoman Suzanne Klapp and Mayor Jim Lane. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane says he too commends the local effort to force the matter at hand onto the upcoming general election ballot.

“They did it. And, in a very real sense they should be applauded for it,” he said pointing out he offered a Charter amendment during a 2017 public hearing, which died for lack of council support on the dais.

“The language really covers the bases. In essence, it is what I was looking for. I will vote for it.”

Scottsdale Councilwoman Suzanne Klapp also recognizes the will of the people and says she too will be voting for Prop. 420 on Nov. 6.

“I commend the considerable hard work of so many Scottsdale citizens who circulated petitions giving the voters the decision to change Scottsdale’s Charter restricting large developments in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Over 30,000 residents signed the petitions,” she said. “I hear quite clearly the voices of many, many thousands of citizens, so I will support and vote for Prop. 420 on Nov. 6.”

Scottsdale Councilman David Smith says he is happy the issue can be resolved this winter.

“I’m glad the uncertainty has finally been resolved,” he said. “Now we can turn to a discussion of the relative merits of the ballot question itself and debate the implications of its passage or failure. With a robust and civil discussion, we will have an informed vote on Nov. 6.”

But when asked how he would vote coming election day, he declined.

“I don’t think it is appropriate that I try to influence the outcome of this election by announcing my vote before the community has had this robust and civil discussion,” he said.

Mr. Smith contends the ballot measure needs to be contemplated further as unintended consequences could be realized.

A view of Scottsdale Councilwoman Virginia Korte and Councilman David Smith. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

“The Preserve already has recreational facilities, paid for with Preserve funds, that benefit a small portion of our citizens and tourists — hikers, bikers and equestrian enthusiasts,” he said. “Citizens must be confident the ballot language, if approved, will not limit opportunities for the rest of our citizens and tourists to also enjoy our city’s greatest asset, to the fullest extent possible.”

In some respects, Scottsdale Councilwoman Linda Milhaven echoed a similar sentiment, but says she will be voting, “no” on the ballot proposal.

“I am concerned about the far-reaching, unintended consequences that will restrict our ability to protect our Preserve and manage it responsibly, therefore, I will be voting, ‘no,’” she said.

“For example, the changes would prevent the city from moving forward if we need to create additional emergency access for fire fighters, construct a channel to divert flood waters to protect lives and property, including existing trailheads, or add watering holes to protect wildlife during extended drought.”

But Ms. Milhaven says she too respects the voice of the people.

“I respect the process, the citizens’ right to bring forward an initiative and commend the effort required to do so,” she said.

“In fact, it was my suggestion, when the city council could not agree on ballot language, to give citizens the time they needed to bring forward their own language. The signatures support a vote. The vote will tell us what citizens want.”

Scottsdale Councilwoman Virginia Korte says she doesn’t know where she stands on the ballot question.

“I appreciate what went into placing this issue on the ballot,” she said. “I’m undecided. Changing the City Charter should be a thoughtful process and not a knee-jerk decision.”

Scottsdale Vice Mayor Guy Phillips (File Photo)

Scottsdale Vice Mayor Guy Phillips says he will vote for Prop. 420 as he believes the measure reinforces what the original ordinance meant to illustrate.

“I will be voting, ‘yes,’ not just because I believe in the process, but because I feel this is what our original ordinance stated, but had since been interpreted differently by Scottsdale’s legal dept to allow city council to build in the Preserve without voter approval,” he said. “It was unfortunate that a group of passionate residents of Scottsdale had to go through this rigorous process but thank God they did, and successfully!”

Mr. Phillips says the signature-gathering effort is an example of how democracy ought to work.

“I believe this is unprecedented in Scottsdale history and in a time where voters feel disenfranchised with their electorate, this is proof you can make a difference, at least in local government,” he said. “I applaud all those who worked hard and diligently to see this initiative through. Truly a best case example of democracy in action.”

A dark pursuit or shedding the light?

Two community groups came together to accomplish one goal: halt commercial construction — or the notion of it — from occurring within Preserve bounds.

Alex McLaren

However, Scottsdale resident Alex McLaren has offered the idea the signature-gathering effort could be viewed as merely a tool of “Dark Money” where anonymous donors pull the strings behind closed doors.

Mr. McLaren, in a commentary published by the Independent, says that signatures gathered were more the result of dollars and cents rather than sweat equity. He cites campaign finance disclosure documents filed at the Scottsdale City Clerk’s Office.

“The report also reveal that (Protect Our Preserve) paid $39,088 to signature collectors,” he said.

“This amount was from Jan 1 to June 30. POP acknowledges the use of paid signature collectors on their website and it is not unusual for political campaigns to pay folks to collect signatures. The list of signature collectors on the filing numbers 32 people, of that number only four have listed Scottsdale as their address.”

Protect Our Preserve PAC members vehemently deny this claim.

“Again, this is not uncommon but when you consider how NoDDC and POP proclaim that they are a grassroots group, it seems strange that they need help from outside of Scottsdale,” Mr. McLaren said. “At $2 per signature they paid for about 19,500 signers, representing approximately 53 percent of the 37,000 signatures submitted.”

Mr. McLaren asserts the anonymous donations to pay for signature circulators is, in fact, what many decry as “Dark Money.”

“In my opinion the larger issue of potential ‘dirty money’ is paramount. Can we be told who contributed the $55,000? If you are a transparent organization is it not important for folks to know where the monies are coming from?”

A view of a NoDDC signature gathering event held at Windgate Ranch, which was led by Jason Alexander.. (Submitted photo)

Jason Alexander, Scottsdale resident and founder of the NoDDC movement, assures volunteers and donors that made the effort possible are local residents.

“The overwhelming majority of volunteers and donors are from Scottsdale,” he said. “There are three different entities engaged in protecting the Preserve: No DDC, Protect Our Preserve, and Protect Our Preserve PAC. Each organization followed the reporting rules required of it.”

And, just like every other political action committee some donations are disclosed while others are not, Mr. Alexander explains.

“The reporting differed depending on where and how much was donated,” he said.

“The amount of money that Alex McLaren and the Desert Edge Advocates say was not transparent is a few thousand dollars donated directly to No DDC or Protect Our Preserve, which do not have the same reporting requirements as (Protect Our Preserve) PAC.”

Mr. Alexander points out $50,000 was funneled through a 501(c)4 nonprofit in-turn funding the PAC.

“Most of these ‘dark’ donations were $20 and $50 donations and some t-shirt sales over a period of two years,” he said. “We are talking a total PAC budget of about $50,000 about 1/50th of the taxpayer dollars Sam Campana and DDCSI spent.”

The grassroots effort to halt the Desert EDGE, says Mr. Alexander, has sparked renewed interest in community activism. As voters decide the fate of Prop. 420, they’ll also be casting votes for the city council — which he hopes will lead to a new political agenda for the city. He is confident many of those who support Prop. 420 will vote for candidates who also support the proposition.

“We win the campaign to vote YES on 420,” he said of next steps. “Many volunteers are eager to support Solange Whitehead and Kathy Littlefield for council. We want to win all three campaigns.”

Mr. Alexander says he intends to run for office in 2020 — a year that will feature a race for mayor.

“The Desert EDGE was simply the worst offense in a long line of offenses against the residents. Citizens learned that Linda Milhaven and others on the council work for special interests, not residents.”

Betty Janik, who serves as treasurer of Protect Our Preserve, says the signature-gathering effort is a result of community activism not back-door deals.

“Protect Our Preserve PAC undertakes a vibrant marketing campaign to inform all Scottsdale citizens what Prop. 420 is about,” she said.

“Protect Our Preserve hosted two very successful fundraisers with contributions from hundreds of individuals. The overwhelming majority of these contributors were from Scottsdale residents. These funds were passed on to POP PAC and used to cover the cost of the paid circulators, not funds from our anonymous donor. Alex McLaren is confusing the Protect Our Preserve corp. with the Protect Our Preserve PAC.”

Here is the proposed site plan for the proposed Desert EDGE development within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (Submitted graphic)

Just to be clear: NoDDC and Protect Our Preserve are the leading groups opposing the Desert EDGE. The groups formed independently as non-profit organizations, but had united in their efforts to collect the now-verified signatures to put Prop. 420 on the local ballot.

NoDDC says they are led by a team of 40 dedicated volunteers with experience in law, finance, business, government and real estate with approximately 250 volunteer signature collectors, according to noddc.org.

Scottsdale resident Mike Norton, a strong critic of City Hall, says the initial push behind the NoDDC movement was emotional.

“The effort to stop the DDC/Edge started out as a gut-level, impulsive response to the offense of having our voting rights ignored,” he said.

“The right to vote and more importantly the attack on the right to vote prompts otherwise complacent people to action. No one ever said, ‘let’s start an organization to rally opposition.’ Quite the opposite, the response was immediate and nearly unanimous.”

Mike Norton

Mr. Norton predicts record voter numbers in November 2018 as the local awakening of political matters in the city of Scottsdale has reached a fever pitch for many.

“Brand new political leaders are emerging from all of these loosely affiliated organizations,” he said of the grassroots level of Scottsdale activism.

“We will see a new governing board for our community schools. We will also see new city council members break up the group that were pawns for power brokers. Solange Whitehead is just the start. Jason Alexander is just one of several more great candidates who have promised to run in 2020.”

It’s not an anti-growth stance, Mr. Norton says, it’s a pro-Scottsdale political stance.

“We all want growth — smart growth,” he said.

“We all want powerful community schools that become the anchors of neighborhoods throughout the city. We all want to believe in our political leaders instead of shaking our heads and wondering why on earth they thought they could get away with the craziness and in far too many cases the corruption that was foisted on Scottsdale.”

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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