Correction: A previous version of this story stated the Council will consider creating a nine-member task force. It will actually consider creating a seven-member task force.
Scottsdale City Council opened the door to further delays in the process to approve a new General Plan, the city’s guiding development document that has not received a voter-approved update in two decades.
The current draft of General Plan 2035 was reviewed for months by a committee made up of members of city boards and commissions and the city planned to bring that plan before voters in November following a lengthy public review process required by state law.
But at Council’s Jan. 12 meeting, Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield asked her colleagues to consider creating a new seven-member task force charged with reviewing the recommended plan, gather citizen input and provide a new draft for Council review.
“Although I like and agree with some of what they have done, especially in the later chapters, I cannot support the draft as it stands now,” Littlefield said. “I truly believe it has some very serious weaknesses.”
Council on a 4-3 vote approved Littlefield’s request and will vote on the task force Tuesday, Jan. 19.
Council members Solange Whitehead, Betty Janik and Tom Durham joined Littlefield in supporting the measure. Mayor David Ortega, Linda Milhaven and Tammy Caputi opposed it.
“My concern is when a bureaucracy starts piling on bureaucracy,” said Ortega, the only member who was also on council in 2002 the last time voters approved a new General Plan.
City Manager Jim Thompson said any new committee review could cause further delays in the public review process that would likely push the vote into 2022.
But Littlefield said it was more important to “get it right” than to finish the process quickly, stating, “I am very afraid if we do not (create a new task force), regardless of what we do in our meetings, it’s not going to pass.”
The city has not passed a new general plan with voters in nearly 20 years despite a state law requiring municipalities to receive voter approval of a new plan or plan update every 10 years. Council adopted a new plan in 2011 but it failed at the ballot box the next year.
A second attempt a few years later failed after Council declined to bring a draft before voters.
In 2019, following an inquiry by the Progress, the Legislative Council at the Arizona State Legislature provided an opinion to Rep. John Kavanagh that found Scottsdale is likely in violation of state law.
The city disagreed with the opinion.
Erin Perreault, the city’s long range planning services manager told the Progress in 2019 that “Planning staff has been advised that the 2011 General Plan update process satisfied Scottsdale’s 10-year state required General Plan update requirement.”
Despite the potential violation, the Legislative Council also determined that state law includes no enforcement mechanism or penalty for failure to update the plan.
“There is no follow-up provision that contemplates what is to occur if and when a city does not pass a motion or reconsider a motion to readopt a plan or adopt a new plan,” the Legislative Council memo stated, adding:
“Accordingly, we are unable to state whether or not the City of Scottsdale is required to take further action on the general plan under these circumstances.”
In 2019, Kavanagh, whose district covers most of Scottsdale, said “it’s really depressing” when cities don’t follow the law and said he could introduce a bill in the future to add enforcement.
However, in the years since, Kavanagh, who was re-elected in 2020, has not followed through with a bill closing the general plan loophole.
In late 2019, he told the Progress “There is currently a legislative mechanism, which is the 1487 action, but it would potentially strip Scottsdale of millions of dollars in revenue. I am not prepared to do that to my constituents. It will be up to the Attorney General to litigate it in court or the voters to change leadership at the polls.”
Still, at the Jan. 12 meeting, Milhaven suggested the city was at risk, albeit a small one, that city could lose state shared revenues under a broad state law prohibiting cities from falling out of compliance with state law.
City Attorney Sherry Scott said she did not believe the city was at risk, because its good faith attempts to pass a plan satisfied the “spirit” of the law.
“I’m not concerned as the city attorney, but there is a perception issue that we are in violation,” she said.
Both Milhaven and Caputi disagreed with the argument the city has not done enough public outreach or that it was somehow rushing the process, citing the fact that Council already approved a process involving the old citizen review committee and had worked on the issue for months.
But supporters of creating the new commission said they had serious issues with the draft general plan and would like the new fresh eyes, including those who do not serve on boards and commissions, to provide additional feedback.
They expressed concerns that hundreds of comments and requested changes submitted by the public were not included in the draft revised by the citizen review committee.
“There’s substantial opposition from parts of our community, and it’s not just one particular section; it’s basically all the way from north to south,” Councilwoman Betty Janik said.
Janik said the pandemic severely hampered the ability of the public to participate in the process.
However, Ortega said many of those comments were not submitted until the committee’s last meeting and there was little time to add them to the draft before the committee dissolved.
But Ortega said the end of the committee review was not the end of the public comment process – far from it.
“Remember that the public comment is not closed…only the work of the (committee) was terminated,” he said.
Under state law, the draft plan still had to undergo a six-month review process that includes public comment and multiple reviews before the Planning Commission and Council.
That process will now likely be delayed to give a new task force the time to review the 310-page draft general plan.
More will be known about the potential composition of the new committee when the Council meets on Jan. 19.
Littlefield indicated membership would be open to any resident and encouraged all interested parties to apply. Council would appoint members from applications submitted to the city.