Scottsdale City Council candidates outline Prop. 420 views

Local voters Tuesday, Nov. 6 will select three people to serve as elected leaders atop Scottsdale City Council.

This election year showcases a total of five candidates seeking three City Council seats.

The incumbents are: Kathy Littlefield, David Smith and Linda Milhaven, meanwhile the challengers are Bill Crawford and Solange Whitehead.

In partnership, the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce and the Scottsdale Independent are hosting a candidate debate at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd., from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 1, which will be aired on local cable access.

The field is set, and the Independent offers its fourth installment of an eight-part, question-and-answer series to help readers better understand the motivations and beliefs of the five candidates.

The Independent reached out to each candidate seeking to better understand their interpretation of Proposition 420 and how they will vote on it when election day comes.

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.

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

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.

This is what they had to say:

Linda Milhaven

Linda Milhaven

•What is your impression of how Proposition 420 will change the provisions within the Scottsdale City Charter?

I am concerned about the far reaching, unintended consequences that will restrict our ability to protect our Preserve and manage it responsibly. Prop. 420 would amend the Charter to require a public vote if the city wanted to do anything more than build the trailheads already on the drawing board, new trails or maintain what is there today.

If the fire department wants to improve our fire readiness by improving access or creating a fire break, we would need a vote.

If the city wants to construct a channel to divert storm waters to prevent a flood and protect the lives and property of people who live in the flood plains to the south and the west of the mountains, we will need a vote.

If we find the trailheads exceed capacity, we could not expand existing trailheads or build new ones to handle additional visitors. If we want to add more watering holes to protect wildlife during an extended drought, we will need a vote.

If we want to remove invasive, non-native plants that are overtaking the Preserve and threatening native species that could be considered altering the “natural state” and require a vote.

Citizens should read the complete text of the Charter amendment on the city’s website so they can see for themselves what it says.

In short, it says “No land … shall be altered from its natural state unless specifically authorized by … votes.” “This section does not apply to … new trails,” “maintenance on existing trails and trailheads,” “appropriate restoration,” “expansion of trail head parking facilities as depicted in each approved trailhead plan” and “completing … Little Granite, Fraesfield and Pima Dynamite trailheads, … as depicted in each trailhead’s approved plan prior to the effective date…”

Charter amendments should be carefully evaluated. This proposed amendment springs out of concern related to a long-planned desert education center. The proposed amendment goes much further than stopping a concept and creates policy that will restrict our ability to protect the Preserve.

•Are you in support or opposition to Proposition 420?

I will be voting no for all the reasons mentioned here.

•What makes the dirt within the Preserve so precious?

I learned from my hours with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, that our desert is unique in the world because we have two rainy seasons.

This is why the saguaro is only found in the Sonoran Desert. The plants and animals have migrated from tropical climates. They adapted to periods of droughts and are replenished by monsoon and winter rains. These rainy seasons create our unique lush, beautiful, colorful desert.

As our city reaches build out, we have protected our desert heritage and created a special place where we can escape, enjoy and learn.

•What do you believe is at the root of the unprecedented local political opposition to development within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve?

No one is suggesting commercial development in the Preserve. No one wants retail centers, housing, hotels or office buildings in the Preserve. The proposed Charter amendment springs out of concern that a long-planned desert education center, known as the Desert EDGE, would be considered commercial development if it charged admission, had a gift shop, or sold snacks.

If eliminating activities that charge money from the controversial education center makes the project more attractive, then we should not include those uses.

It is ironic that both sides of the current public debate passionately love and cherish the Preserve. During one community discussion, a citizen shared that his love of the Preserve was so strong that he was willing to go to any extreme to stop the education center.

The two issues — the proposed Charter amendment (Prop. 420) and the Desert EDGE — have converged and confuse the question at-hand.

The current question at-hand is whether or not to amend the City Charter.

Today, the education center project is on hold. The last proposal was reviewed over a year ago and suggested the center use less than five out of our over 30,000 acres — less than most of our trailheads.

At that time, we told staff that we did not want to move forward without further discussion of alternative locations and options for phasing or downsizing the project. I trust that Scottsdale voters will get past the sound bites, read the text of the Charter Amendment — not just the ballot language — and decide for themselves what is best for themselves, the Preserve and Scottsdale.

Kathy Littlefield

Kathy Littlefield

•What is your impression of how Proposition 420 will change the provisions within the Scottsdale City Charter?

Prop. 420, if passed with a “yes” vote, it will make a small change in the City Charter to allow Scottsdale citizens to vote on whether or not to allow any commercial development inside the Preserve boundaries. Any such decision (including the one concerning the Desert DDC/EDGE) would go to you, the citizens and owners of the Preserve, for your consideration. It will take that decision out of the hands of a 4-person Council majority and put it back in to the hands of you, the voters. Everything else remains the same.

•Are you in support or opposition to Proposition 420?

I am in support of Proposition 420 and urge voters to vote “YES” to the charter amendment.

Citizens voted to tax themselves to purchase the land – currently over 30,000 acres and costing about $1 billion tax dollars – to create a Preserve, to preserve the land from development, and allow the plants and animals to live without further man-made damage to their natural habitat. In order to assure voters that Scottsdale would keep its promise to them, citizens wrote and the City passed the Preserve Ordinance, detailing what would and would not be allowed inside the Preserve boundaries. Unfortunately, the Ordinance can be changed and modified to remove the terms that protect the animals and plants with a mere 4 votes of Council. The Ordinance is simply not strong enough to protect the land from the intrusions of growth and development. We need the strength of a Charter amendment – which cannot be changed without the voters’ consent – to protect the land and our investment from commercial development.

•What makes the dirt within the Preserve so precious?

Our McDowell Sonoran desert is a very unique place in our world, harsh and demanding – absolutely! – but filled with a beauty and grandeur that is unparalleled elsewhere. It is one of the few remaining places so unique and breathtaking in Scottsdale that hundreds of thousands of people come every year simply to see it and learn of its existence.

In fact, I do not know of another city the size of Scottsdale anywhere in the United States that has done what we have done to preserve the land, the animals, and the heritage that is embedded in it. Our active stewards are trained and knowledgeable in desert life and are available to answer questions and give tours.

The Preserve extends to and connects with the Tonto National Forest, so animals can continue their migratory patterns without interruption.

The Preserve is closed at dusk and opens at dawn (in the Ordinance) so animals are not kept from their natural movements across the land.

Our Preserve is precious because it is unique, beautiful, and we value its vast openness and natural landscape. It’s also free. Go to a trailhead, park your car, and walk in. Set up a time and take a tour. There is no charge, and the Stewards all volunteer their time.

•What do you believe is at the root of the unprecedented local political opposition to development within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve?

Development inside the Preserve boundaries goes against the basic promises made to citizens when we were asked for our money to buy the land. We were asked five times for money and in return we were promised the land would remain in its natural state, except for the trails, trailheads, and parking facilities. There would be no development inside the Preserve. That was the point of creating the Preserve in the first place — to Preserve it for our children and our children’s children. A Preserve is not a park and should not be treated as one.

If the promises made to us, the citizens, regarding the future of the Preserve are going to be broken, we should at least have a vote as to whether we want what they wish to build. I do not believe most citizens do. I think we are rightfully proud of what we have created and want to keep it that way. The folks who want commercial development inside the Preserve know this too — that’s why they do not want you to have a vote on it.

At the root of the issue is, of course, money. There is a huge pot of it in the Preserve fund which is supposed to be used to buy the land, pay any loans off for those land purchases, and to pay for the creation of the trails and trailheads and parking facilities. But a huge limitation on that money is that the Preserve fund — currently estimated to total about $68 million by the time the tax stops — can only be used for the Preserve lands and improvements thereon. Therefore, to use that funding source, development must be done inside the Preserve boundaries. So basically, the Desert EDGE is an attempt to use your Preserve dollars for a development which runs against what the Ordinance promised to you when the City asked for your tax money. Of course, if, for example, the Desert EDGE is built, those dollars will deplete. Also, the estimated short-fall to the City’s Operating Budget each year for maintenance of the Desert EDGE will be somewhere between $1.7-$2 million – for which you will, of course, be taxed.

I believe a better use of those Preserve funds would be either to attempt to continue the purchase of land within the set boundaries of the Preserve, to create an annuity for the perpetual maintenance of the Preserve so we would never have to go back to the citizens for additional funding, or to return the funds to citizens in the form of a sales tax reduction.

Bill Crawford

Bill Crawford

•What is your impression of how Proposition 420 will change the provisions within the Scottsdale City Charter?

If approved, I believe Proposition 420 will be a minor change to the city charter. Beyond the charter change, Proposition 420 has been an empowering force for the people of Scottsdale and demonstrated that we can bring about change in our community.

•Are you in support or opposition to Proposition 420?

I support Proposition 420. My position supporting a public vote has been clear and consistent since launching our campaign for Scottsdale City Council in November 2017.

Scottsdale residents voted five times to tax themselves to raise money to assemble and purchase the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. It belongs to the people of Scottsdale. I strongly believe any fundamental change impacting the disposition of land set aside as a Preserve for future generations should be approved by a public vote.

•What makes the dirt within the Preserve so precious?

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is the largest urban Preserve in the U.S., encompassing more than 30,000-acres. It is also a major contributor to our quality of life, our economy and brings tourism dollars in to Scottsdale.

For more than two decades, my wife Debbie and I have spent countless hours in the Preserve on horseback or hiking. I want my children and grandchildren and future generations to have the ability to enjoy the Preserve just like we have.

Scottsdale residents created and expanded the McDowell Sonoran Preserve after approving several tax increases to purchase the land for preservation. Therefore, Scottsdale residents should have the final say on what happens to the Preserve.

•What do you believe is at the root of the unprecedented local political opposition to development within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve?

The Preserve is Scottsdale’s largest and most enduring treasure, and the message of “Protect Our Preserve” began to pick up steam and the movement became organic.

As momentum built, politics came in to play and continue to be in play. Unfortunately, some politicians have taken advantage of this grassroots movement for their own political gain.

It’s a shame this issue has become so political. The Preserve is about Scottsdale and our residents, not a way for politicians to score political points.

Solange Whitehead

Solange Whitehead

•What is your impression of how Proposition 420 will change the provisions within the Scottsdale City Charter?

Proposition 420 is limited in scope, easy to read, and formalizes past city protocol into the City Charter. “YES on 420” protects Scottsdale citizens against development in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and the diversion of Preserve tax dollars by requiring voter approval.

Until now, City Council majorities have been trustworthy stewards of the Preserve and the Preserve tax dollars. Until now, every major Preserve decision was voter approved. The attempt by this City Council majority to build the Desert Edge/DDC, divert critically-needed Preserve tax dollars, and deny a public vote is unprecedented.

We now know that city protocol, alone, will not protect Scottsdale residents’ $1 billion Preserve investment. Which led to the monumental citizen effort to collect over 37,000 voter signatures, override City Council, and put Proposition 420 on the ballot.

“YES on Proposition 420” protects the Preserve and tax dollars against development by requiring voter approval.

It does not change the management of the Preserve, does not impact trail building, nor does it limit fire department access.

Scottsdale does not need a $68 million Desert Edge/DDC. The city’s decades-long partner – the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy (MSC) – already provides free Sonoran Desert education programs for all age groups, guided hikes and bike rides, they organize trail maintenance projects, and engage in important Sonoran Desert research. The work of MSC is done without developing the Preserve and without burdening Scottsdale taxpayers.

•Are you in support or opposition to Proposition 420?

I will vote YES on Proposition 420.

Regardless of the motivations behind this City Council’s push to develop the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, their actions demonstrate that our Preserve – and possibly all public spaces – will be targets for exploitation.

A “YES on Proposition 420” will protect Scottsdale residents from unsound decision making or political corruption at City Hall.

•What makes the dirt within the Preserve so precious?

A Preserve is to be preserved.
As one 13-year old wrote to me: I understand the meaning of the word “preserve,” why don’t the adults?

•What do you believe is at the root of the unprecedented local political opposition to development within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve?

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve dream became a reality thanks to the vision and devotion of past mayors, City Councilmembers, business leaders, and our engaged and wonderful residents. The preservation ethic continues to ignite passion and unite our community.
The current City Council majority’s actions to develop the Preserve and misuse preserve tax dollars places Scottsdale’s financial security at risk and is unprecedented.

David Smith

David Smith

•What is your impression of how Proposition 420 will change the provisions within the Scottsdale City Charter?

Our citizen-approved City Charter articulates a set of aspirations of how the city will be governed, akin to the U.S. Constitution. Implementing these aspirational goals is done with city ordinances to provide interpretative limitations and define operational details, akin to what the laws of our country do for our U.S. Constitution. City ordinances already exist to set limitations and operational details for the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

The operational detail in Prop 420 is not appropriate language to include in a City Charter. Specifically, Prop 420 would incorporate additional limitations and details in the Charter through broad restrictions (…nothing shall be built…) and a limited set of special-interest exceptions (…trails, trailheads, parking lots…) Any exceptions other than those enumerated – even to correct unintended consequences – would require follow-on public votes.

•Are you in support or opposition to Proposition 420?

I support the goal of Prop 420 to “protect the preserve”: I do not support the idea that trails, trailheads, parking lots and horse accommodations protect the preserve…but nothing else will.

I support the goal of Prop 420 to clarify that the preserve is an asset of all the citizens of Scottsdale: I do not support language that protects the interests of a few citizens to enjoy this asset, while denying the interests of an even greater number of other citizens who helped pay for the preserve.

I support the goal of Prop 420 to prohibit commercial development on the preserve: I do not consider public assets (libraries, museums, senior centers), owned in the name of citizens, to be commercial developments.

I support the goal of Prop 420 to clarify that the citizens’ vote for “improvements thereto” included trails, trailheads, parking lots and horse accommodations to create a recreational preserve: I do not support the argument that those were the only improvements intended to be allowed.

In general, I support the expressed will of my fellow citizens: I do not support the will of an anonymous, “dark money” group of advocates who are not transparent in their attempts to influence Scottsdale’s local governance.

•What makes the dirt within the Preserve so precious?

All “dirt” in Scottsdale is precious. How we allow the lands of our entire city (including the preserve lands) to develop determine whether we can hold onto the special cachet that defines our city and makes our city an attractive place to live and visit.

Voters made it clear in two ballot measures that they wanted the McDowell Sonoran Mountains and adjacent lands protected from housing and/or commercial development. Beyond that, voters authorized “improvements thereto” with the understanding such improvements would:

  • Alter the state of the acreage from “preserve” to “recreational preserve” for citizen/visitor enjoyment.
  • Enhance citizen/visitor appreciation for and education about the preserve.
  • Be public assets, owned by the government on behalf of Scottsdale citizens.

We must honor citizen goals for preserve land, just as we honor city-wide land development goals approved in the citizens’ adopted General Plan.

•What do you believe is at the root of the unprecedented local political opposition to development within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve?

In a word – misinformation! Sometimes the spread of misinformation is inadvertent: other times, it seems intentional to incite public outcry. Citizens have been led to believe the City Council is about to approve:

  • A developer’s commercial establishment within the preserve. This is not true. If the proposed educational/learning center is ever built, it will be a public asset, owned by Scottsdale citizens, the same as a library, museum or senior center.
  • A development that sets the precedent for violating the sanctity of the preserve. This is not true. If located in the 30,000-acre preserve, the project site of less than 7 acres would be small, compared to the hundreds of acres already disturbed for development of trails, trailheads, parking lots and horse accommodations.
  • Spending $68 million to construct (and millions more to operate) an educational/learning center. This is not true. The project is well beyond our budget! If the center is ever built, it will only be after major modifications reduce its fiscal impact to a manageable level.

Civil and respectful, fact-based discussions in the weeks ahead may lead to greater citizen understanding.

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

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