Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center critics remain steadfast in fight for public vote

The scene at Scottsdale City Hall Monday, Sept. 19 as opponents of the proposed Desert Discovery Center came out in force to voice their frustration with the project. (Independent Newsmedia/Melissa Fittro)

The scene at Scottsdale City Hall Monday, Sept. 19 as opponents of the proposed Desert Discovery Center came out in force to voice their frustration with the project. (Independent Newsmedia/Melissa Fittro)

While a citizen petition failed to gain traction at Scottsdale City Council Monday, Sept. 19 two community advocates — Howard Myers and Jason Alexander — remain steadfast in their assertion the public must decide what occurs in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

The city’s stance: Section 8, Article 8 of the Scottsdale City Charter provides the council with the authority to designate or not to designate lands owned by the city as Preserve lands therefore framing development constraints on defined lands.

The proposal of a desert-appreciation venue coined — the Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center — has become the focal point of local politics with citizen factions now fully sprung on both sides of the issue.

Mr. Alexander, the public face of the anonymous “No DDC” community group, now finds himself at the helm of a political action committee, which he says is meant to throw support behind certain political candidates in the upcoming November city council election.

The No DDC effort became a PAC as of Tuesday, Sept. 20 with Mr. Alexander noted as the chairman, according to the Scottsdale City Clerk’s Office.

Mr. Meyers, who started the “Protect our Preserve” effort, says while he was hopeful his group’s petition would spark an about-face from city council on construction pursued within the Preserve he was not surprised by the outcome.

Both men say a public vote will happen on the proposed construction of a Desert Discovery Center at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve either by legal challenge or through referendum.

They also assert they are waiting for the next step from the Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale outfit, which was given $1.69 million by city council last January to develop a business plan for the proposed desert appreciation venue.

Sam Campana, executive director of the DDCS, says by early 2017 formal designs should be in the hands of DDC proponents with a final report and business plan expected at Scottsdale City Council in July of next year.

The Preserve itself, advocates of the Discovery Center say, is not enough for visitors to appreciate the McDowell Sonoran Preserve while detractors say the proposed facility is nothing more than a pet project of a handful of the community’s elite.

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.

Although the Sept. 19 city council meeting did not address the Discovery Center project directly the petition and ensuing conversation at the local dais was clearly motivated by community concerns now fully bloomed.

Specifically, the city council was asked to evaluate these two items:

  • The construction of anything in the Preserve other than trails, minimal facilities required for trail heads used for trail access, and the land bridge over Dynamite Boulevard only occur with a public vote;
  • The usage of preserve tax funds for anything other than land acquisition, the building of trails, minimal facilities required for trail heads used for trail access, and the land bridge over Dynamite Boulevard only occur with a public vote.

Scottsdale Councilwoman Linda Milhaven — who made one of three motions offered — asked that her colleagues do nothing regarding the citizen petition.

Her motion carried 4 to 3 with council members Kathy Littlefield, Guy Phillips and Mayor Jim Lane dissenting.

A view of the Gateway to the Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve in north Scottsdale. (Photo credit: Chris Brown)

A view of the Gateway to the Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve in north Scottsdale. (Photo credit: Chris Brown)

A motion about nothing

Councilwoman Milhaven says the Discovery Center has drawn a line in the sand for some.

“There are people, neighbors who live nearby and next to the Preserve, are very concerned what we are going to do there,” she said in a Sept. 20 phone interview.

“I think that they have been given false information — from folks who are trying to stop the project.”

Councilwoman Milhaven says if Scottsdale City Council were to have entertained the citizen petition there could be unintended consequences nobody wants.

“For us to set guidelines for citizen votes for all of those kinds of things, housekeeping items, there are lot of unintended consequences that could stop us from doing some really basic things,” she said.

“I don’t see a Charter amendment being the solution to this issue. In my mind, the petition was a way to create some conditions that would prohibit the construction of the DDC.”

Councilwoman Milhaven says the city of Scottsdale has embarked on a process to discover the right kind of venue for a desert appreciation facility.

“While folks may have been there advocating for a public vote a Charter amendment is not the right way to stop a project,” she pointed out.

“I think the Desert Discovery Center can be an amazing amenity for all of us to enjoy, but we need to let the work continue. People should find out what’s going on, get updates and be a part of the process.”

Citizens on patrol

Mr. Alexander says there were no surprises at this past Monday’s city council work session discussion.

Jason Alexander

Jason Alexander

“My initial reaction is that it went exactly how we thought it would go,” he said in a Sept. 20 phone interview.

“We expected Guy Phillips and Kathy to support the petition and we fully expected Mayor Lane to hem and haw and hide behind Phillips and Littlefield.”

Mr. Alexander says certain comments regarding the legality of both the citizen petition and the city’s stance regarding construction within the bounds of the Preserve can be challenged — and will be.

“I think at the very least, he is opening up the city to a lawsuit,” he said of comments made by City Attorney Bruce Washburn. “The biggest one is that tax law cannot supersede the city Charter.”

Proponents of the Discovery Center have made this political, Mr. Alexander contends.

“They have made this a political issue — who you elect determines the fate of the DDC,” he said. “We are going to get into this election and support candidates.”

The petition defeat was more of a rallying cry than dead end, Mr. Alexander says of the No DDC effort.

“This was not a disappointment and actually was kind of inspirational to be a part of the 200 people from all over and from different groups joining together,” he said.

“I think we have hundreds of people ready to take the next step and if our PAC is approved, I would be worried.”

Howard Myers

Howard Myers

Mr. Meyers says regardless of political pandering both a legal challenge and a citizen referendum will be pursued at whenever, and however the city council OKs the construction of the Discovery Center.

“Clearly they made a huge mistake because the citizens are the ones who created the Preserve,” he said in a Sept. 20 phone interview.

“Citizens formed the Preserve and voted twice to tax themselves to maintain and grow it. We have a whole list of strategies depending on what happens. It should be the citizens that decide what goes on in the Preserve.”

Mr. Meyers says his group is laying the ground work to be able to gather enough signatures within a 30-day period — in this case that number would 8,000 of qualified Scottsdale voters —following a city council vote to approve the Discovery Center.

“All that happened is this just means we are going to have to take a different tact,” he said. “We do believe there are a ton of legal issues and I don’t believe their legal explanation at all for being allowed to build in the Preserve.”

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

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