Scottsdale Desert EDGE proposal begins municipal, community inquisition

Members of the Tourism Development Commission and McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission listen to a presentation on the concept of Desert EDGE during an Aug. 10 joint work study session. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

The latest iteration of what was once deemed the desert discovery center but now realized as the Desert EDGE is making its way through the municipal rigor at the city of Scottsdale.

The Scottsdale Tourism Development and McDowell Sonoran Preserve commissions hosted a joint work study discussion on the newly unveiled plans for the Desert EDGE Thursday, Aug. 10 at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd.

While the hours long discussion divulged the grandiose vision of the Desert EDGE a few items of note emerged:

  • The city of Barstow, Calif. has a Desert Discovery Center;
  • EDGE proponents believe the 2004 Preserve sales tax ballot language of “improvements thereto” creates a mechanism through legal interpretation for those dollars to build the desert appreciation venue;
  • And, a “blending” of both Preserve and bed-tax remits will be needed to build the Desert EDGE but what the numbers come out to is unknown.

“We want to introduce you to the Desert EDGE,” said Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale CEO Sam Campana at the onset of the Aug. 10 work study discussion.

“We knew that from the get-go that we couldn’t be the desert discovery center because there is a desert discovery center in Barstow, Calif. It is much smaller but does similar kinds of things and they probably wouldn’t want something similarly named within a days drive of them.”

Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale Executive Director Sam Campana speaks at City Hall Thursday Aug. 10. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

On Monday, July 31, Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale unveiled its plan for a proposed desert-appreciation venue now envisaged on less than 6 acres just south of the established Gateway trailhead, which includes a series of structures coined “pavilions” and has an asking price of $61.2 million.

The Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale has also announced a formal partnership with the Global Drylands Institute at Arizona State University.

Ms. Campana says a road to funding has been identified but how that road winds has yet to be laid.

“We looked at a lot of ways for this to be funded … there is a recommended path, a no-new-taxes path that we think city council could entertain and we would like you all to think about,” she said to the members of the commissions and the general public.

“There are two dedicated taxes that exist that being the bed tax and the Preserve tax either one of those could be used to fund the Desert EDGE. We think some blending of the bed tax and the Preserve tax and then of course our contract the private sector would have to bring 10 percent of that capital cost — that is what a private-public partnership is.”

The Preserve itself, proponents of the Desert EDGE 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 for 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.

The Scottsdale Planing Commission 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 23 is expected to hear a presentation on the Desert EDGE at City Hall while city council is expected to host its first discussion on the topic this September.

The Barstow discovery

The Desert Discovery Center in Barstow, Calif. is at 831 Barstow Road and is made possible through partnerships forged through Barstow Community College, Barstow Unified School District, the Bureau of Land Management, the city of Barstow and the Mojave Valley River Museum.

The city of Barstow is about 55 miles north of San Bernardino.

The Desert Discovery Center hosts exhibits, a desert trail and is home to the Old Woman Springs Meteorite, which is the second largest space rock ever found in the United States.

The center is staffed primarily by the Bureau of Land Management and was formerly known as the California Desert Information Center. The facility itself is a 7,000-square-foot museum surrounded by 12 acres of BLM land.

Records show the center underwent an expansion proposal in 2010 and 2011 where the footprint of the center would have been expanded 8 acres into the Mojave Desert.

Given the Barstow Desert Discovery Center is just a day’s jaunt from the city of Scottsdale the name had to change, but the show must go on, Ms. Campana contends.

“This is our new look and our new name as we move forward,” she said.
The Desert EDGE is a acronym that stands for: Encounters, Discovery, Global Insights and that All Eduction is Pervasive, according to Ms. Campana.

The DDCS proposal calls for 5.34 acres of disturbed land to create 47,586 square feet of facilities and structures within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve surrounding and retro-fitting portions of the maintenance facility structures already there.

The city allowed for a 30-acre study area while hired hands of the DDCS — New York-based Thinc Design and Scottsdale-based Swaback Partners — proposed a series of interwoven structures showcasing varying stages of life in the Upper Sonoran Desert.

John Sather of Swaback Partners speaks during the Aug. 10 joint work study session. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

The legal legalese

Longtime Preserve advocate and retired zoning attorney Lynne Lagarde provided during the Aug. 10 discussion a legal interpretation of both the existing Preserve ordinance and its 2004 sales tax ballot measure.

“In 2007, the city council approved a municipal use master site plan at the Gateway,” she said during the public hearing.

“It includes a Desert Discovery use as the second phase. The use in the Preserve at the Gateway had already been approved, but not this project. This project is going through a municipal-use master site plan process that would amend the approved site plan that would include this project.”

Ms. Lagarde contends the proof is in the legal interpretation.

“People have misunderstood what those rules are about,” she said.

“If you take a look at the ordinance as a whole you understand why this facility is allowed in the Preserve. One of the key purposes of the Preserve — in addition to preserving the land — was providing, and I am reading this, I quote, ‘public access for educational purposes.’ That is what we are trying to do: have a superior opportunity for people to delve deeply into their experience of the desert.”

Furthermore, Ms. Lagarde contends, the efforts for the EDGE construction are pursuing activities already allowed by a city permit process.

“All of the activities that we are proposing to be a part of the Desert EDGE are happening in the Preserve subject to permits that the city has already processed,” she said. “The city Charter has nothing to do with this project. It’s a process for removing land from the Preserve we are not looking to move any land from the Preserve.”

Scottsdale resident, Preserve steward and founder of the Protect our Preserve advocacy effort Howard Myers has a different perspective on legal interpretations made.

Howard Myers

“Yes, the 2004 vote allowed money raised by that tax increase to be used for ‘improvements thereto’ in the Preserve and the DDC people think the DDC/Desert Edge is an improvement,” he said in an Aug. 15 statement. “Of course we disagree, but the fact is Preserve tax funds can be used for anything built in the Preserve. They can not be used for any operational overruns.”

Mr. Myers says the ambiguity of the Preserve ordinance is being exposed.

“The Preserve ordinance is not specific enough, but it was designed to not prohibit ‘appropriate public access’ but rather to control that access to protect the Preserve from abuses and inappropriate activities, or development, in the Preserve,” he said.

“It was designed specifically to protect the Preserve and prevent it from being transformed into a park, which is why it prohibited things like concessions and other ‘amenities one might expect in a park.’”

Scottsdale City Attorney Bruce Washburn says he can’t comment one way or the other regarding the legal analysis of the established Preserve ordinance, which was adopted by city council in 2000 and can be found in Chapter 21 of the Scottsdale Code of Ordinances.

“The interpretation that Ms. Lagarde made, the analysis she gave you, is in respect to the proposal that is being brought forward by the DDCS,” he said at the Aug. 10 public hearing.

“I do legal analysis for the city and for the city council and so I am not prepared really to comment on the legal analysis or their proposal for that matter. If the council decides what they want to do if anything in the Preserve I will give my legal opinion on that. But for right now I am not really prepared to discuss legal analysis or comment that is not within my purview. I am not going to comment on legal analysis.”

Duke Reiter, senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University, speaks to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission, the Tourism Development Commission and residents gathered in the Kiva Forum at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd., during an Aug. 10 joint work study session. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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