Buch: the perplexing case of the Scottsdale Heights rezoning

Scottsdale Zoning Attorney John Berry at the March 21 city council meeting where a minor General Plan change was approved by Scottsdale City Council. (File photo)

There are numerous aspects of what transpired at the council meeting during the evening of Tuesday March, 21  that perplex me and many others. Rather than move forward with major misunderstandings and/or unrealistic expectations of our city council, I write you seeking a variety of clarifications.

1. Major Plan Amendment: it is clear that the rezoning of any parcel of 15 acres or more is a Major Plan Amendment (not just “typically”, but consistently). The site in question is +/-15.5 acres, per the county assessor. It is referred to as that throughout the staff report and in the related documents prepared by the City Attorney’s Office. This point was made in public testimony as well as by Councilman Smith, yet you chose to ignore it. Why?

The choice of the term “urban” land might also appear to be an effort to avoid this being considered a major General Plan amendment when few would consider this area of the Sonoran Desert to be “urban.” The staff report first says that (typically) “densities similar to the one being proposed would align with suburban (emphasis added) neighborhoods (and) … would constitute a major General Plan amendment.” But then, only two sentences later, they state that, compared to the densities of other neighborhoods, this more closely aligns with urban neighborhoods. The patent inconsistency is abundantly clear. Why is it permitted?

2. Sub-dividing the site: as it stood on Tuesday night, this was a +/- 15.5-acre site. Yet the staff report included a plot plan, provided by the developer, that certainly appeared to infer the site had already been subdivided into a 14.0-acre parcel and a separate 1.5-acre parcel. What relevance/validity was that site plan? It was clearly an effort to suggest the main parcel was something less than 15 acres (see Major Plan Amendment, above). But desire and reality are two different things. Why was this allowed to proceed as though (when it suited the developer) there were two separate parcels?

3. Selective “site” definitions: the site was defined differently at different times, depending upon what aided the developer’s desires at a given point. It was 14 acres when the major plan requirements were brought up. But it became one 15.5-acre site when the NAOS requirements were mentioned (and the 1.5-acre segment was needed in order to meet the minimum NAOS acreage). How can the site expand and contract and be different things at the apparent whim of the developer? It seems very similar to the “is it urban or suburban?” question. The answer appeared to change as a consequence of what specific benefit the developer was seeking at a given moment. Your apparent lack of concern about, or interest in, consistency is concerning. Were Councilman Smith and Councilwoman Littlefield the only ones troubled by this?

4. Winfield: I don’t mean to single out one neighborhood but Winfield’s supposed support for the development was mentioned by several of you as important in your decision-making process. At the time that the greatest Winfield support (25 residents) was garnered, those in attendance had incorrectly been told not to worry about density — that would be addressed and agreed at design review. A more recent vote of the board simply represents the feelings of the five board members. If we are counting heads, Mr. Gordon produced a “petition” objecting to the project, signed by 39 residents. I’m not suggesting that is conclusive in a community of perhaps 1,000 residents but it seems there is no objective basis to conclude that “Winfield” supports the project.

5. The community: the council was elected to represent the citizens of Scottsdale. Some of you repeatedly volunteer and stress that fact. Yet you sat with well over 600 communications from your constituents stressing their opposition to this project. I believe there were five letters in support of it. Add 25 at the misinformed Winfield meeting plus two speakers on Tuesday evening. How did you conclude that the voices of 32 supporting the project outweighed the 600-plus in opposition? I am hard pressed to understand how that accords with your supposedly pursuing the will of the majority.

6. Traffic: many of you expressed considerable angst about “traffic.” No doubt commercial development would draw more people than 78 residences. But local residents are going to shop somewhere! If they can consolidate their trips to visit one multi-faceted commercial center, would that not make sense? Do you want to spread commercial development around North Scottsdale in small pods, requiring shoppers to drive from area to area?  Will “traffic miles” not be considerably reduced if I no longer drive to Pinnacle Peak to buy my vegetables? Or Thompson Peak to see my doctor? Or Mayo Boulevard to visit a couple of specialty grocers? What am I missing?

7. Needed commercial space: the recent Land Use Assumptions Report projects that the north sub-area of Scottsdale will absorb 3,576 acres of residential land over the next 13 years. If one estimates an average of four dwelling units per acre and 2.5 people per unit, that amounts to 35,000 more residents. They are going to shop somewhere. Do we want them spending their money in Carefree, Cave Creek, Phoenix?  And, what of additional traffic if they have to drive many miles to access the services and goods they seek?

The shrinking availability of commercially-zoned land in north Scottsdale is a critical concern and should be seen as such. As noted at the council meeting, a recent study concluded the city needs to find 144 commercial acres in north Scottsdale by 2030. Currently, we have/had 67 undeveloped, commercially-zoned areas. Now your votes have reduced that number by 15 acres, or 22 percent. We are now short 92 acres. Where/how will that acreage be found — presumably as a consequence of the politically-sensitive conversion of residential land (in residential neighborhoods) to commercial? To some people, your decision/vote to just “kick the can down the road” seems irresponsible, not to mention expensive.

In the circumstances, developing additional commercial services on the 15.5 acres of already commercially-zoned land, adjacent to the very successful Summit Center (322,000 square feet with a 98 percent occupancy), would seem totally logical, appropriate and sensible. It is difficult to comprehend why you have chosen to preclude that opportunity and exacerbate the challenge.

8. Land use impact: Less than a year ago the city had applied economics produce a land-use model to assess the net present Value (“NPV”) of sites under different use assumptions. With respect to the specific site in question, AE calculated that “the existing Commercial land use designation shows a positive NPV of $2 million, while the proposed Urban Neighborhoods shows a negative NPV of $135,000 over the same time period.” What would possess you to forego a net $2,135,000 benefit to the city in order to benefit a commercial developer? Would it be inappropriate to expect the developer to cover the cost of the decision you have made to directly benefit him (while using the public’s money?)

9. Reliability: since 2001 the C-2 zoning on this site has been intended to remain as such, based upon logical reasoning, explained at that time. There was to be a 150-foot building setback from Dove Valley Road (shielding Winfield). It appears those requirements were easily cast aside on Tuesday evening when you approved R-3 zoning, which allows up to 12.93 dwellings per acre. A primary reason people moved to this area was because they valued the open space of the Sonoran Desert environment.  If that environment is at risk with you allowing ever-greater density and urbanization, then the public ought to be made well aware of that before the next Scottsdale Heights comes along. Likewise, if you do not intend to adhere to the General Plan and if developers are destined to prevail over existing homeowners, the community ought to be made aware of that.

One could go on but there would already seem to be enough questions on the table. Many of your constituents would be very interested in your responses. Many are concerned that council favors developers’ interests over those of your constituents — those who elected you to represent them and their interests. Hopefully the concerns raised by Councilman Smith and Councilwoman Littlefield will be pursued in the days ahead.

Our General Plan states it’s goal as “Creat(ing) a sense of unity through land issues.”  Your recent vote may well have done that — but not in a positive way. The days ahead will hopefully find you paying greater deference to the residents of Scottsdale, as opposed to developers.

Editor’s note: Mr. Buch is a resident of Scottsdale

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