Scottsdale City Council to consider PHS validity amid neighbor complaints

Russ Johnson, president of PHS, and Dan Marchand, curator, uncrating one of the new arrivals of black caimans in 2016. (File photo)

After venomous concerns, the Phoenix Herpetological Society seeks Scottsdale City Council’s approval to “validate a long-standing land use.”

On March 5, the City Council will consider if the reptilian society met criteria for approval on three areas of concern said to have stemmed from neighbor complaints about the facility in north Scottsdale at 28011 N. 78th St.

The meeting will take place at 5 p.m. at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd.

PHS has offered classes to local residents on how to live with the desert animals. (File photo)

There are three points of consideration, with the main issue being a Conditional Use Permit on a community building and recreational facilities; followed by hardship exemption from the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Ordinance for individual lot walls set back about 15 feet from surrounding property lines; and special exemptions from the Foothills Overlay Ordinance Sections by including three-feet barriers, appropriate enclosures and parking screened off from the street and neighboring properties.

According to a city staff report, the Planning Commission heard the CUP case on Feb. 13, recommending approval with a 5-0 vote. While the CUP conditions include timelines for conformance with ordinances, codes and policies, further plans are dependent on approval of other environmental concerns such as abandonment, final plat, wash modification, etc., which is yet to be submitted.

Phoenix Herpetological Society President Russ Johnson said, during a phone interview on March 1, that some of the necessary considerations for reallocating space resulted from building on areas considered natural agricultural open spaces after zoning changed from county to city property.

While taking time out from working with crocodiles, and trying to “keep from being eaten,” he said how excited he and fellow representatives are that the matter was to be voted on at the upcoming meeting; and that he will attend the March 5 meeting.

“We went through the commission’s meeting, two weeks ago, and they approved,” Mr. Johnson said. “We handed out lime green T-shirts inside there.”

He described the “sea of green T-shirts” that he could see supporters wearing at that meeting and wants to see the supporters at the upcoming meeting too.

“We are entering our 19th year there. Our major crux is education, coexisting with our natural species that we have around. Our community support has been fantastic. The community has been very supportive. We have a lot of people who come from out-of-state to stay here. We want to continue to keep doing what we have been doing for 19 years with educating the public,” he added.

The city staff report gave details about representatives’ desire to “legitimize” the facility housing 1,700 reptiles including venomous snakes, crocodiles and tortoises despite some neighbors’ concerns. There was concern about the facility’s continued growth, causing increased noise, traffic, dust, odors, drainage, water quality issues along with emergency services concerns and surrounding property devaluation.

Debbie Gibson, Phoenix Herpetological Society vice president, submitted a guest commentary to the Scottsdale Independent, published at the beginning of the year, stating the need to protect the facility against extinction like many of the wildlife the organization tries to protect.

“We are increasingly at risk of becoming an ‘endangered species,’” she wrote.

She implored some members of the neighboring community to reconsider their stance on wanting the wildlife sanctuary to move. She explained the need to remain close enough for kids to come to be educated about the reptilian world and how to coexist.

Originally, the Phoenix Herpetological Society began in 1983 when the Marchand family started rescuing reptiles. Although the facility started off as a small holding area for the animals, according to the report, the facility has experienced tremendous growth over the years.

The facility’s “regenerative” process occurred in 2006, as historic aerials show structural additions on property. Ten years later, the city got a code enforcement complaint that necessitated the Conditional Use Permit process; followed by more complaints in late 2018, regarding disturbances including a green and stagnant pool, and trailers.

Independent Newsmedia News Services Specialist Delarita Ford can be reached by e-mail at

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