The Scottsdale Independent offers its Top 10 stories of 2016

Over the course of 2016 the Scottsdale Independent reported on hundreds of topics, ranging from the Scottsdale housing market, to the municipal and school district elections to the project proposed said to provide education about the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

The Independent offers a look back over the last year’s Top 10 stories in the city of Scottsdale:

1. Mystery surrounds latest DDC iteration

Mystery continues to surround what the Scottsdale Desert Discovery Center will look like, how big it will be and what exhibitions will be housed in the proposed desert appreciation venue located at the entrance to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Scottsdale residents attended a DDC workshop Wednesday, Nov. 30 to learn more about how plans are progressing for the desert appreciation venue. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

The discovery center proposal has become a focal point for local politics with citizen factions fully entrenched on both sides of the issue.

Proponents of the Discovery Center say the project 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.

Scottsdale City Council last January approved a measure with three caveats — including the budget transfer of $1.69 million — in an effort to lay the foundation for an opportunity to construct an interpretive desert appreciation venue at the Gateway to the Upper Sonoran Desert.

On Nov. 30, residents were able to ask questions directly of vendor representatives following a 20-minute lecture.

Answers to the those questions, from Thinc representatives, lack much in specificity but did continue to hinge upon the idea the facility is meant to be educational in scope.

2. Landslide: Lane wins re-election

Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane in November won his re-election campaign against challenger Bob Littlefield.

Jim Lane

Unofficial results show Mayor Lane beat Mr. Littlefield by a 27-point margin, garnering 63.82 percent of total votes cast or 48,547 total votes. Mr. Littlefield received 27,520 total votes, results show.

In addition, Scottsdale voters re-elected all incumbents seeking another term: Suzanne Klapp, Virgina Korte and Guy Phillips.

3. SUSD voters approve millions for bond, override

Scottsdale Unified School District voters on Nov. 8 approved two funding initiatives meant to aid students in and out of the classroom.

The $229 million bond to be used to repair failing infrastructure and school buses passed with a 57.6 percent approval by voters, according to unofficial results available at the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office.

The $8.5 million capital override to be used for books, curriculum, technology, chairs, desks and playground equipment passed with 55.5 percent approval, results show.

The school district operates 30 schools with about 24,000 students, according to the district’s website.

4. Interim school leader given permanent nod

Dr. Denise Birdwell will soon remove the “interim” from her superintendent title as the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board unanimously voted to begin negotiating a contract to officially make her the district superintendent.

Dr. Denise Birdwell

The decision came at the board’s Tuesday, Nov. 23, Governing Board meeting at Coronado High School.

Dr. Birdwell has been the interim superintendent since January 2016. She was appointed to the position temporarily while the district conducted a nationwide search for a replacement to Dr. David Peterson, who had abruptly resigned in December 2015.

5. SB 1350 likely to spur new marketplace

Local leaders say SB 1350 has gut the ability for local municipalities to regulate short-term vacation rentals outside of commercially zoned resort or hotel establishments within city and town limits.

Senate Bill 1350, sponsored by Arizona Senate Majority Whip Debbie Lesko (R), goes into effect at the end of calendar year 2016 and restricts local cities and towns from being able to regulate or restrict the use of vacation rentals or short-term rentals within municipal boundaries.

Since the late 1950s, the city of Scottsdale has had regulations prohibiting any rental of a home for fewer than 30 days. Many say the regulation was an effort to protect the tourism industry specifically hotel room rates and occupancy.

Municipal leaders say the proposed legislation is meant to help fuel the idea of a “shared economy” championed by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, but the unintended consequences of allowing residential homes to act as boutique hotels could be devastating to local neighborhoods, they contend.

Scottsdale resident Jill Schweitzer Thursday, Aug. 4 in south Scottsdale where she says HOA powers — like other communities in Arizona — is running rampant. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

6. Arizona citizens ban together to address HOA legislative powers

A group of Arizona citizens are gathering at the capitol every month to force a conversation on the legal powers and lack of oversight and regulation of homeowners associations throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Arizona Sen. David Farnsworth (R) on the third Monday of every month hosts what he has coined, a “mastermind group” allowing everyday residents, community advocates and legal professionals to look at how certain powers granted to HOAs by the Arizona Legislature can be reined in.

“What we are we working on is to benefit the public,” said Scottsdale resident Jill Schweitzer in an Aug. 2 phone interview.

“So the public can see there is a reason behind this and there is a reason behind that —there are homeowners who don’t even know there is a problem. We are really passionate about seeing the laws changed to protect homeowners.”

Ms. Schweitzer, who passed away in October, had penned a book on HOA issues and produced videos on local issues impacting homeowners. She said the mastermind group was looking to reinstate homestead protections for homeowners within HOA communities.

In addition to reigning in the foreclosure power of HOAs, Ms. Schweitzer said there is very little oversight and accountability of HOAs. She said the group is looking to develop new regulations that may include beefed up disclosure requirements for vendor gifts provided to community management groups.

7.  Dolphinaris Arizona opens in October on tribal land

Two female dolphins jump while playing at Dolphinaris Arizona prior to the facility’s October opening date. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

The dolphins have arrived. Five inshore Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins —three females and two males ranging in age from 6 to 20 years old — recently moved with their trainers to their new home just off of the Loop 101 on the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community.

The newest residents will be living at the Dolphinaris Arizona facility, a dolphinarium that consists of three connected pools, spanning from 2 to 10 feet deep and containing nearly 1 million gallons of filtered salt water.

Dolphinaris Arizona, a product of Mexico-based Dolphinaris, has been the center of public criticism since plans were first announced early last spring.

8. Hope floats as Thompson named city manager

Scottsdale City Council has its man.

The local governing board on Dec. 8 named Jim Thompson, most recently the city manager at the city of Casa Grande in Pinal County, as its successor to Fritz Behring, who during his short tenure at Scottsdale gained esteemed praise from his peers lauded for his ability to problem solve and build consensus.

Mr. Thompson will be taking the reins from Brian K. Biesemeyer, Scottsdale water director, who has been serving as acting city manager since June 2015.

Scottsdale City Council formally severed employment ties with former City Manager Behring in March of this year. At the time, Mr. Behring was on a nine-month hiatus as a result from a stroke that occurred during a June 2015 city council meeting.

The city of Scottsdale enlisted the services of The Mercer Group with a contract for $25,000 to handle a final attempt at the city manager recruitment process, records show. The recruitment process was months long and brought in municipal talent from across the nation, city officials say.

9. Scottsdale won’t pursue fixed-rail transit options

Scottsdale City Council has turned its back on the prospect of allowing any kind of fixed-rail transit system within city limits.

The governing board on July 5 voted 5 to 2 on the latest Scottsdale Transportation Master Plan update — a policy document focusing on different modes of public transit — from bus and trolley routes to roads, highways and walking paths.

The plan was devised by the Scottsdale Transportation Commission, which is a seven-member advisory group made up of local residents appointed by members of Scottsdale City Council.

Scottsdale Councilwomen Linda Milhaven and Virginia Korte were the dissenting votes.

10. Scottsdale vice mayor moves to abolish ‘regressive’ food tax

David Smith

Scottsdale Vice Mayor David Smith says he is on a mission to abolish a local sales tax he deems regressive and a burden to the community’s most vulnerable population —the working poor and elderly.

Scottsdale City Council on Jan. 26 voted 5-2 to take 1.1 percent of the 1.65 percent retail sales tax assessed on all grocery sales within city limits — a total of about $8 million this coming fiscal year — and funnel those dollars into the capital improvements budget forecast. The entire 1.65 percent food tax will account for about $12 million in fiscal year 2016-17, city estimates state.

Since 2004 the city of Scottsdale has been assessing a 1.65 percent sales tax on all grocery goods sold within city limits. Until earlier this year, 1.1 percent was dedicated toward the General Fund while the remainder was divided into the city’s transportation and preserve funds, city leaders say.

Vice Mayor Smith claims consumers on average are taxed $48 a year for the privilege of buying groceries within Scottsdale city limits. His information is based on tax remits and the city population.

About 8 percent of Scottsdale’s population —226,918 —lives beneath the federal poverty line, according to the 2010 Census. A gross annual income less than $23,350 for a family of four is the median poverty line in the 48 contiguous states, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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