Scottsdale community on political EDGE as July signature deadline looms

Some say the groundswell of support to stop construction of the Desert EDGE within McDowell Sonoran Preserve lands is more about personal preference than a pursuit of conservation. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Over the last several months more than 200 Scottsdale residents have pursued and gathered nearly 35,000 signatures to force a public vote on the prospect of commercial development within the bounds of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

The grassroots effort, comprised of two community groups, is expected to deliver what they believe to be 24,000 qualified Scottsdale elector signatures, Thursday, July 5 at the Scottsdale City Clerk’s Office.

The grassroots signature effort is one derived from what some say has been the great divider of the community while others say it has been a unifying issue and a hallmark of the American government experience.

At issue: proponents 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.

The July 5 deadline is the culmination of a series of events put into motion by community members, but formalized by Scottsdale City Council in November 2017.

At the time, Scottsdale City Council, amongst a bevy of other considerations, instructed its hired hands to “provide time for the citizen initiative petition process to be completed before moving forward” with any and all formal actions regarding the construction of the what was first coined “the Desert Discovery Center,” but now envisaged as “the Desert EDGE.”

A political fight has been brewing for more than two years on how and if a desert-appreciation venue ought to be constructed with the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

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.

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale unveiled its plan for a proposed desert-appreciation venue last July.

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.

In recent months the confluence of influence has shifted from traditional power broker to the political gadfly, particular well-heeled as it were.

But while proponents of the Desert EDGE appear to have been humbled by the impact of alleged misinformation, a tech-savvy social media campaign and a regular onslaught of local opinions they also remind of a basic idea regarding Scottsdale.

Proponents of Desert EDGE project say the city of Scottsdale — where they believe they played a vital role in the development of the community — is one built upon the next great idea.

They also say that perhaps the community’s greatest achievement, the Indian Bend Wash, wasn’t always the darling project as that measure took three attempts to get voter approval.

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale board member, Lynne Lagarde, and Sam Campana, the executive director, say they remain steadfast to the assertion the Desert EDGE and the opportunity to bring a great idea to fruition in the city of Scottsdale is still a possibility.

They challenge the notion the Desert EDGE is a bridge toward commercial development within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve nor has their approach been an underhanded attempt to raid tax dollars coined “Preserve funds.”

On the other side of the local political scuffle are residents Jason Alexander and Howard Myers. Mr. Alexander championed early on an anonymous approach to his concerns surrounding the desert-appreciation venue meanwhile Mr. Myers championed an approach focused on the prospect of commercial activity within Preserve lands.

Mayor Jim Lane

The Mayor of Scottsdale, Jim Lane, says the campaign against the proposed Desert EDGE project has shifted the local political paradigm and the perception of the municipality.

“The campaign against the Desert Edge has successfully called into question the authority, judgment and truthfulness of the council on the subject,” he said to the Independent.

“The opponents don’t want or trust ‘the process’ to assess the viability of the Desert EDGE since, in their minds, every aspect of the proposal is illegitimate. I offered compromise charter amendments requiring a vote on the subject two years ago and then again in a bit different form last year. They were rejected by council members on both sides from even being discussed in a council meeting.”

Regardless of the outcome of the signature-gathering effort, Mr. Lane says the measurement of viability of the proposed project remains slim.

“Personally, the prospect (of) the Desert EDGE making it past any council assessment of viability given the current proposal is slim,” he said.

“The civic attitude developed through this division within our community has permeated every aspect of governing and stands to do harm to our ability to operate as our charter defines. Whatever the result of the public vote on the subject, it is my hope that our Scottsdale community can reunite to build on our cachet.”

A view of community members speaking out at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd., against construction within Preserve boundaries. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

A long and convoluted journey

Scottsdale City Council first approved the most recent idea to construct an interpretive desert-appreciation venue at the Gateway to the Upper Sonoran Desert in January 2016. The measure was approved with three caveats and included a budget transfer of $1.69 million to create the initial proposal.

That measure passed 6 to 1 with only Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield voting against the measure. Ms. Littlefield felt any changes to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve zoning restrictions ought to be voted on by the general public.

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

That resolution, among other things, enabled a dedicated municipal funding source for the creation and operation of a desert-appreciation venue.

In addition, the resolution required the proposed operator of the facility — Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale — to raise 10 percent of the capital cost of the venue.

On June 7, 2016 Scottsdale City Council approved a $521,090 contract with Scottsdale-based architectural firm, Swaback Partners. The contract allows Swaback to provide programming and schematic design services for the planned facility.

Swaback Partners is the same architectural firm Scottsdale City Council awarded a design services contract for $432,000 in January 2010 for the first iteration of what the desert-appreciation venue would be.

Beyond the hiring of the architectural firm, the DDCS has tapped New York City-based Thinc Design to create exhibitions at a rate of $278,840, plus $30,000 in expenses, according to Ms. Campana.

A community divided

“I don’t know if there is an easy answer,” said Ms. Lagarde in response to being asked why such staunch opposition has erupted against a museum and research facility.

“Scottsdale, it has always been a visionary community. The failure of the recent bond elections speak volumes. A small group of people are incredibly unhappy, but the majority of people are very happy and very content — and they don’t vote.”

Ms. Lagarde contends the consternation and visceral reaction to the Desert EDGE project has largely been a product of a misinformation campaign and a distortion of facts.
“The explanation cannot be boiled down to a sound-bite,” she said of what the project is meant to illustrate for the community.

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale Executive Director Sam Campana (File photo)

Ms. Campana, who points out the Desert EDGE project is a product of the city of Scottsdale, says the last few years has been a difficult time.

“We thought we had found a way for citizens to have the center without new taxes, we thought it was going to be wonderful,” she said of the EDGE proposal. “We never anticipated this level of blow-back. We made this project significantly smaller due to the community consternation, well, the neighborhood concerns, really.”

Scottsdale Councilman David Smith offers a different perspective.

“While there are certainly groups of citizens who passionately support or oppose this project, as they understand it, I don’t believe our community at large is divided,” he said. “On the contrary, I believe our citizens are united by a deep affection for the city they call home.”

Mr. Smith contends passion can oftentimes fuel emotions — and the city of Scottsdale is filled with passionate residents.

“Individual groups of citizens have always been passionate — for and against — initiatives they perceive as boldly changing their city,” he said.

“Years ago, passions ran high over creating what we call the Indian Bend Wash. Citizens today are united in their appreciation and admiration for this unique city asset. Let’s not forget in 1994, the debate was spirited over whether to approve a temporary sales tax to acquire Preserve lands. Put to the electorate, 13 percent voted, ‘yes,’ 8 percent voted ‘no,’ and 79 percent never voted at all.”

He also points out an increase to the Preserve tax rate was also an impassioned play by local residents.

“Ten years later, the debate was again spirited over whether to increase the Preserve tax and introduce recreational uses into the preserve lands,” he said. “This time 15 percent of the voters said, ‘yes,’ 12 percent said, ‘no’ and 73 percent never voted at all. Today we have a recreational Preserve admired by citizens and tourists alike.”

Scottsdale resident Pat Shaler at the signature training event held in north Scottsdale. (Submitted photo)

A community united

Mr. Myers and Mr. Alexander largely have been the figureheads of two citizen groups — Protect our Preserve and NoDDC — that have gone from naysayers to political wildcards.

“First of all, it is not a divider, it has actually united the citizens of Scottsdale,” Mr. Myers said.
“The public was totally in the dark and when they came out and wanted to build without going to the public … a lot of people woke up at that point. Out of that came a group of people who were bound to fight it.”

Howard Myers

Mr. Myers describes a common understanding of ideals as the glue keeping the about 230 signature-gathering volunteers motivated to stop the Desert EDGE.

“I don’t care if they build it as long as they don’t build it within the Preserve,” he said. “The Desert EDGE Advocates, they wanted to use that Preserve money and that is what they are really after.”

Political action committees — both lawsuits and campaign finance violations have been filed — on both sides of the issues are regularly trading accusatory electronic communication.
“We need around 24,000 valid Scottsdale voter signatures,” Mr. Myers said pointing out the endeavor has been an enormous undertaking.

“We want to change the City Charter to require a public vote to build anything in the Preserve — that is basically it. And, also you need a public vote on using Preserve money for anything other than purchasing land and finishing trails.”

Both Protect Our Preserve and NoDDC supporters have come together in the belief they are righteously saving the Preserve lands of Scottsdale.

“It is remarkable that whatever our difference is we can all come together to do this,” he said noting a change to the Scottsdale City Charter is akin to a change the Constitution. “Once you change the Charter, the city council can’t change it. It really is going to protect the Preserve into the future. We knew this is what we really need to do to protect in the future. Everyone really got together on that. This is something we could all agree on.”

For Mr. Meyers the fight hasn’t been against the development of a desert-appreciation venue or a research entity, it’s been about the thought of commercial activity on precious lands.

“It is a credit to everyone and this goes back to the original formation of the Preserve,” he said. “The petition has nothing to do with the Desert EDGE really. Personally, I like some of the designs I just don’t think it belongs in the Preserve.”

Jason Alexander

Mr. Alexander says he wouldn’t call the effort to defeat the Desert EDGE a righteous endeavor, but can’t deny the satisfaction.

“It has been a very long journey as you can imagine and it has been incredibly satisfying because we feel like we are taking an active role in our government,” he said.

“We feel that we have not been represented by our government and what we are doing is in best interest of us, our neighbors and the city. We see a big disconnect between the citizen and the growth-focused city council.”

When asked what keeps supporters motivated, Mr. Alexander replied, “everyone continues because they believe what is happening needs to stop and their voice needs to be heard.”

Mr. Alexander says he is confident signatures will be verified.

“Absolutely, we are, as of today, at about 34,000 and we are going to get as much overage as we can to survive the legal challenges that will come from the opposition,” he said.

“Every single leader within the group has lost their cool with every single one of us. We are all working hard and we are all stressed. We are trying to find ways to collaborate. It has been a lot of growth for each and every one of us. “It has just been constant of having to build compromise with stakeholders to make this work.”

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

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