Scottsdale’s state-mandated General Plan update process has bounced between the ditches for a couple of years, but today it finally ran off the cliff. Four key members of the General Plan Task Force–all community leaders and longtime resident advocates–resigned en mass.
Realtor and former city council member Ned O’Hearn, was joined in the lifeboat by GPTF co-chair Jim Heitel, Howard Myers, and former City Council candidate Joanne “Copper” Phillips. The GPTF meeting tonight may decide if the band continues to play while this titanic mess goes down by the bow.
The City Council has been ignoring the 2001 General Plan almost since the day the voters ratified it. An official attempt to cement its dilution failed with the ballot box defeat of the updated 2011 General Plan.
This newest effort kicked off with a “visioning” circus hosted by ringmasters from the real estate developer-friendly Arizona Town Hall. City planning staff ceded to AZTH the latitude to pick anyone to attend. In some cases, Scottsdale residents were excluded while none Scottsdale residents were selected.
Taking a throw-the- baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach, AZTH made no effort to define success or identify successes yielded by having a General Plan. Community advocates were effectively thwarted in their efforts to include such discussion.
That pattern continued with AZTH being allowed to select from among the visioning attendees to fill spots on the GPTF. Naturally, non-Scottsdale residents were included, as well. And naturally, the folks who want to do away with Scottsdale’s historically high standards for development exercised their voices loudly; chief among them: Rick Kidder of the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce; and Joe “McCarthy” Galli and Loren Molever of the now-defunct North Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce.
The General Plan update was to have gone to the voters this fall. In a way, I think this plays into the hands of the developer shills on the City Council (Linda Milhaven and Dennis Robbins), since they can’t be tied to it.
The following is a summary of the events that have just unfolded, in the words of GPTF member and chair of the Coalition of Greater Scottsdale, Sonnie Kirtley.
Good morning, COGS E-Newsreaders, Since last year, 25 city council –appointed volunteers have served on the General Plan 2014 Task Force. The GP is YOUR set of city guidelines for the next 10 years and required by state law. The very uniqueness of our city and your lifestyle are protected and enhanced through the written policies. All city council members, commissioners and board members (not to mention employees) are to implement the vision, values and directives approved by the Scottsdale voters. You approve or disapprove that with the final General Plan draft this November 2014.
HOWEVER, the 25 GP Task Force members have increasingly experienced contentious agenda-related dialogues. Individual members have failed to practice what could be termed as civility and there have been perceptions of failure to respect other opinions and to value open discussion.
As a sitting member of this Task Force, it has been uncomfortable to hear some of the verbal exchanges. There have been mountains of study papers loaded with important text to read. The homework has been incredible for those task force members who complete it to prepare for the next meeting. Absences are increasing—one member has missed 7 of 12 meetings according to the staff report. And now—today four community leaders have resigned from the Task Force.
Sonnie Kirtley, COGS Chair
Dear Mayor Lane and Members of the City Council:
With sincere disappointment we are writing to inform you that as of today we’re resigning from the General Plan 2014 Task Force. Please be assured that this decision in no way reflects a diminished interest on our part in ensuring that Scottsdale creates an updated citizen-driven General Plan that will serve as a guide to a prosperous and enviable future for our community, thereby deserving the enthusiastic endorsement of its residents and business leaders next November. Frankly, our concern for the well-being of Scottsdale encompasses the precise reasons that we are resigning.
We accepted your nomination to serve on this Task Force with the hope and expectation of furthering the following widely-held community goals:
Clear Vision: Scottsdale is truly a unique community with an enviable national and international image and reputation. Its General Plan should as precisely as possible inform our residents, visitors, and anyone desiring to do business in the city what it will feel like, be like, and look like in the future. It must be clear and unambiguous.
Promote Smart Growth: The General Plan serves as a guideline to growth. In order to maintain the quality-of-life standards that have attracted residents, visitors, tourists and business entrepreneurs over the years, it must contain assurances that as the city grows, and inevitably it will and must grow, its hard-earned and heretofore protected desirability and high quality of life will not be diminished. The growth we welcome, and go out of our way to attract and accommodate, should fit the overall vision of the city and have a positive impact on the city treasury or, at the very least, not place undue stress on the municipal government’s ability to fund core services and the amenities associated with a high-end community.
Development that clearly doesn’t pay for itself, thus transferring a greater tax burden to other revenue sources, is inevitable and not necessarily unwelcomed, but developers of these projects should be obligated to demonstrate that a critical and recognized community service need is being addressed, that is compatible with the community vision, before any change is granted.
Protect Tourism: Tourism is a key component of the city’s overall (private sector) economy as well as the key component in maintaining a sustainable municipal economy. The General Plan must emphasize that those characteristics – both physical (open space, vistas, low-key skyline, attractive streetscapes) and service-related – that appeal to tourists and higher-income residents and business entrepreneurs, are not compromised to accommodate short-term private development interests.
Protect Neighborhoods: Our residential neighborhoods must be protected against development in, adjacent to, or very near to them that is incompatible with neighborhood character and clearly or potentially injurious to the quiet enjoyment of residential life.
Maintain Quality of Life: People and businesses chose Scottsdale as home based on a multitude of quality-of-life considerations. Maintaining a habitat that is visually appealing, reasonably congestion-free, and sensitive to our beautiful natural surroundings is critical to promoting economic prosperity and enhancing the livability of our city.
Protect Against Losing the Allure of Scottsdale: Cities evolve; everything doesn’t happen at once. It’s easy for planners and decision-makers to lose sight of the cumulative detrimental impacts of individual development proposals. At some point in time a “tipping point” will be reached whereupon it’s too late to recover the loss of character and quality-of-life conditions that have been incrementally compromised.
The General Plan’s Major Amendment Criteria must have “strong teeth” that will deter incompatible or unsuitable development proposals, and ensure that certain projects brought forward for rezoning, up-zoning, or other entitlement considerations, that have [known] impacts on their surroundings, can be thoroughly and carefully scrutinized by citizens and decision-makers prior to approval. Developers with community-serving, context appropriate projects will remain undeterred by this process and enjoy an uneventful and predictable approvals process, whereas developers proposing incompatible or highly questionable projects will have to prove the merits of their plans.
Unfortunately, at this juncture in the life of the Task Force:
- The Town Hall Vision Statement has been declared “off limits,” even though it only started to create a real vision of what the city will feel like, be like, or look like in the future. It is felt by many that the lack of a clear vision was one of the major reasons the 2011 Plan failed, but the Task Force has been prohibited from refining the Town Hall version into an unambiguous, meaningful, actionable vision statement.
- The “all growth is desirable” apologists, representing a majority on the Task Force, have repeatedly displayed an aversion to discussing and drawing conclusions related to critical growth-related issues (population, jobs, construction, etc.). They have shown an indifference to the process, calling for a return to the 2011 failed plan. Those who push for open dialog of the issues are routinely vilified and criticized, sometimes quite heatedly for doing so, while the “growth advocates” stubbornly and unjustifiably refuse to acknowledge compelling arguments, hard facts, and the advice and observations of outside experts they requested input from. Proponents of “smart growth” have been verbally abused as tourism-obsessed self-serving anti-growth “Katie bar the door” elitists, obstructionists, purveyors of inaccuracies, and even as surrealists!
- Real discussion of the reasons for the defeat of the 2011 General Plan are ignored, thus ensuring the likelihood that the Task Force plan will still not address some of the primary concerns that caused citizen-voter rejection of that plan.
- Tourism and municipal fiscal sustainability have been downplayed and marginalized as not important relative to cultivating and growing other (mainly non-revenue producing for the city) sectors of the economy. The city recognizes tourism as a critical net profit component of our economy, yet it is being downplayed in favor of “diversifying” our economy away from a dependence on tourism — this despite the opinion of the expert panel (the growth advocates requested to hear from) that the city should recognize and build on its strengths which are tourism, health care, and open space/recreation — which just happen to be three “Dominant Themes” developed in the 1990s visioning process.
- There has been a lot of talk about protecting neighborhoods but the instruments to ensure those protections have not been defined.
- Some progress with the Major Amendment Criteria was made with the reinstatement of the criteria deleted in the 2011 General Plan that failed to win voter approval. Although the discussion remains incomplete, the ruling simple majority has already taken a strong stance against any serious citizen protections. Furthermore, staff has produced a draft for review/approval prior to the Task Force even concluding deliberations.
Based on what has transpired so far, and with the makeup of the majority of the Task Force such that critical issues can’t be discussed in a reasonable, respectful, and open-minded fashion, we do not see that anything can be gained by remaining part of the process. The unhealthy vilification of our legitimate concerns and efforts, even when backed up with facts and opinions from others, has precipitated our collective resignation.
Rest assured it is not our intent to be shirking our responsibility. We’re not the type to walk away from a commitment we believe in. To the contrary, we have put an extraordinary effort into trying to make this General Plan one the citizens will embrace and will be accepted, despite taking a lot of verbal abuse for even presenting our thoughts and even more so for backing those thoughts up with analysis and position papers.
However, we’re more than ever committed to presenting the Planning Commission and City Council with specific comments and suggestions with the objective of producing a more balanced General Plan draft that finally comes out of this process, one that we believe will have a much better chance of receiving the endorsement of Scottsdale’s citizens, the business community, and developers alike.
Our resignations represent an action we’re taking quite reluctantly and only after careful consideration. Collectively our record of public service to Scottsdale speaks for itself – and unlike others, none of us have anything to gain from the thousands of volunteer hours we have, and continue to contribute to Scottsdale’s future, other than helping to protect and preserve Scottsdale’s enviable prosperity and our citizens’ high quality of life.
We were honored to be selected to be part of the official General Plan Task Force, but it’s now apparent that an open-minded, productive, civil discussion resulting in a blending of philosophies and ideas is impossible to achieve on the current Task Force.
Jim Heitel [Task Force Co-Chairman]