Howard on the General Plan Update

Howard Myers

I heard Howard Myers quoted as once saying, “Why should I go on vacation when I live here?” I could stop with that because his statement told me what I needed to know about the man. But, for your information I will add that Howard is a “dirty-hands” kind of community advocate…that is to say, he’s no Tom Sawyer, sitting back and letting others do the hard work. In addition to his regular service on the Scenic Drive trash cleanup crew and other physical efforts, Howard works hard to articulate to others the beauty of the Sonoran Desert in and around us in Scottsdale. He writes for The Peak magazine, has served on many city boards and commissions, other citizens groups, and regularly provides expert testimony to the City Council and the Mayor whether they want to hear it or not!

I could never hope to match Howard’s ability to analyze, understand, and communicate on many of the issues of city government. Therefore, I’m grateful that he’s graciously allowed us to reprint his very informative periodic community emails.

Both the General Plan update and the major General Plan amendment to the Shea Area were heard by the Planning Commission this past Wednesday. Only a few residents showed up to protest some of the changes, but the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce had a parade of their people come up and testify how good the changes were and how good the public outreach was. The Planning Commission unanimously passed both the update and Shea Area changes, noting that they shouldn’t listen to the “vocal minority”, which I guess was me and the couple of other residents who showed up and spoke against them, but rather to the real citizens (all the Chamber people who were patting everyone on the back for generating such a great plan). These same cases will be heard by the city council starting on October 25th and going through the 27th if necessary, but since there aren’t many General Plan amendments, they will probably all be heard on the 25th.

The other 2 cases that were heard by the PC will add thousands of residents in the Airpark area, in the form of multiple family housing [We will have a column on these Airpark projects next week]. I guess traffic isn’t bad enough there already because they too were approved unanimously with accolades about how great these projects are.

While we have made a lot of progress with some of the big issues with the General Plan update, the major General Plan amendment criteria in particular, the current form of the update still has the following problems, that our current General Plan doesn’t have.

Lack of Vision. The vision statement gives no indication of where the city is headed and what it will look like in 10 or 20 years. As residents of this city, you have a right to know what kind of city you are approving if you approve this plan. Neither the vision statement, or anything else in this General Plan, will tell you that. If you approve this plan, you are basically giving the city a blank check to do whatever they want, mainly because of the addition of “growth areas” which are discussed separately below.

Decimation of Character Areas. The update shows that the roughly 22 original character areas, shown in the 2001 plan, will eventually be reduced to 6. Why is this a problem? Character areas were the major mechanism, identified in the visioning process, to retain those qualities about Scottsdale that make it special and desirable. Since Scottsdale is a tourist destination and has a wide variety of life style choices, it is crucial to retain those characteristics that draw both tourists and the exceptional residents we have. Combining areas of vastly different character into one can’t possibly protect the character of the individual areas that were combined, and of course there is no longer any defining character that applies to the new area. A good example of that is the new Shea Character area which combines the east and west Cactus character areas (large lot equestrian use “rural neighborhood” areas), all the commercial along Shea Blvd, McCormick Ranch, the medical campus at 90th and Shea, all the residential south of the airpark and east of the Pima Freeway, including Scottsdale Mountain. Clearly each of these areas has a unique character worth protecting, but now they will all be in this one new character area, protecting none of them. City staff doesn’t even know how to handle this, but the city council, with help and direction from the city manager, has directed staff to combine character areas so there are many fewer to work on. This direction shows a total lack of understanding of why character areas were established, what they are supposed to accomplish, and why they are so important to this city.

Application of “growth areas”. The city is putting these overlays on areas they want to see intense development occur. They city is reaching “build out” where all the developable land is occupied, but our leaders want the city to continue to grow despite the lack of available land to expand into. The only way to do that is to grow UP, taller buildings, higher population densities, and of course more congestion. These new growth areas define those areas where the city will encourage higher density in intensity. “Growth areas” did not exist in the 2001 plan, rather the plan was the plan. Now a growth area designation can be placed on any area allowing the plan you voted on to be violated. Adding a growth area does require a super majority vote of the city council, but it is still a council decision. This is perhaps the most dangerous change because we can no longer rely on the General Plan to control development because growth areas allow the plan to be bypassed. To add insult to injury, if a development, in a growth area, does not increase the density currently allowed, it is considered a major amendment to the General Plan which requires a super majority city council vote. If it does increase the density currently allowed, it is automatically a minor amendment, which just requires a simple majority vote. To see how this impacts an area, just look at what is happening downtown and you will get an idea, tall buildings and increased congestion are guaranteed. The Shea area will get two of these growth areas this year, if the city council approves them. One will be at Shea and Scottsdale Road and the other at roughly the Pima Freeway and Shea. This is why the Shea Area General Plan amendment should be opposed. Unfortunately, these two new growth areas can be approved by a simple majority city council vote, because they are amendments to the 2001 plan that did not address growth areas. Growth areas is also a good reason to oppose the General Plan update because we get to vote on that and if it doesn’t pass we will go back to the 2001 plan which had none of these problems.

There is just one more chance to express an opinion on either the Shea Area changes or the General Plan update, and that is at the City Council hearing late in October. If you have an opinion, you are encouraged to express it. The Council can approve the Shea Area changes by themselves, but their approval of the General Plan update sill send it to the voters in March for ratification. If you do communicate with the council, do so as soon as possible because they will be having study sessions on the General Plan starting now.

Irresponsible development is a cancer that can destroy any great place, and that is the threat we face. Because of Scottsdale’s success and popularity, developers can make big bucks leveraging our city’s success, but we are left with all the downsides, a degradation of the quality of life we moved here to enjoy and higher taxes to pay for development that doesn’t pay for itself, after they leave with their profits. Growth areas promote irresponsible development. The responsible way to grow is to redevelop aging areas, but in concert with the character of the area, and only accept projects that can show a clear benefit to the city and its residents and that are a good fit to the overall vision for the city (reason why you have to have a clear vision). Which way are you willing to settle for? Because we are at a major crossroad (approaching build out), the future of the city will be determined by the decisions we make in the next year, both on the General Plan and city council elections.

For more information on these issues, check out our “Tomorrow” page…and tell us what YOU think!

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