Downtown retailer Brian Moore

Downtown retailer Brian Moore helped deliver boxes of referendum petitions to Scottsdale City Hall on Jan. 3.

Petitioners seeking to put the Southbridge Two development before voters turned in over 17,000 signatures in support of their referendum, well above the nearly 12,000 required by law.

The process is far from over, though, as the signatures must now undergo a rigorous vetting process to confirm their validity.

The Committee for the Preservation of Old Town Scottsdale political action committee turned in dozens of boxes of signed petitions to the Scottsdale City Clerk less than an hour before the 5 p.m. deadline Jan. 3.

The PAC is seeking to let voters decide whether or not Southbridge Two can move forward under zoning approved by City Council, which, among other approvals, includes allowances for heights up to 150 feet in some areas of the project.

The Secretary of State and Maricopa County Recorder’s offices will now verify the validity of those signatures.

If the PAC’s signatures survive scrutiny, they could effectively kill the current iteration of Southbridge Two before the project ever reaches the ballot.

Carter Unger, president of Springcreek Development, told the Progress he has no intention of waiting until November to find out the fate of the project.

Asked if he would consider waiting until after the election to make a decision about the future of his properties, Unger said “No, I can’t. We have things we have to close on that are way too expensive to buy without the current zoning.”

Unger said if the signatures hold up to scrutiny, his company would move forward with a development under the zoning that was in place before the Scottsdale City Council approved Southbridge Two on Dec. 4 on a 4-3 vote.

“We spent two years and millions of dollars, not on the land but in the entitlement process,” Unger said. “We spent multiple millions to get here and at some point, we have to make a business decision to move forward with something within current zoning.”

As long as the company does not seek further zoning changes or bonuses, the new project would not be subject to City Council approval – or a citizen referendum.

That new project would look a lot different than current Southbridge Two Proposal – which includes a 150-foot hotel and 129-foot office building near 6th Avenue and Scottsdale Road, condo buildings between 65 and 139 feet tall along the canal, retail shops and a market-style grocer along 5th Avenue.

Previous zoning on the site allows for heights between 36 and 48 feet.

Southbridge Two opponents have argued that this height and density would ruin the existing character of downtown Scottsdale and years of construction will put area retailers out of business.

“Everyone is fed up with this type of redevelopment and the Council not listening…we don’t want high rises anywhere; we just want our skyline,” said PAC Chair Janet Wilson, who owns several properties bordering the proposed redevelopment.

Former Councilman David Ortega expressed similar feelings.

“Southbridge Two crossed the line by crowding the waterfront canal and interfering with 5th Avenue businesses and heritage,” Ortega said. “For that reason, there is major anger at the Unger project.”

However, Unger said the project is needed to infuse year-round traffic into the area in order to provide a steadier flow of customers for his tenants, who struggle during the tourism off-season.

Unger accused the opposition of using misinformation about how the project would affect neighboring businesses and public right of ways to elicit support. 

Unger said it was too soon to tell what types of development an alternative plan would include under the old zoning.

But he said a successful referendum would kill the potential for high-end office space, new retail and public open space as well as protections included in a deal with the city like guarantees to keep 5th Avenue open throughout construction while maintaining vehicle access to all businesses in the area.

Unger said pulling the current plan “takes away all the protections of leaving the streets open, the added public parking, the parks, retail, the office – it ruins all of that,” Unger said. “And it kills me. It truly is like getting punched in the gut and it’s not going to be the best thing for the community.”

Unger long argued increased heights and densities of the Southbridge Two project are necessary in order to make other public benefits included in the project make fiscal sense.

However, opponents of the project viewed those warnings as a threat.

Resident Emily Austin, who was active with the PAC’s petition drive, said she is not anti-development but referred to Southbridge Two as “a monster on steroids.”

“And I’ll tell you the other thing that bothers me – he claims he loves Scottsdale so much and cares so much and yet he’s been threatening us with cheap six-story apartment buildings because he couldn’t have his way,” Austin said.

Unger argued that Southbridge Two is his attempt to do right by the city and local merchants and that the referendum would force his hand.

“It certainly will not be the best thing for our merchants…and we’re going to have to do what the opposition accuses developers of doing, which is putting profit before people,” Unger said. “And at this point we’re not focused on getting a profit, but just getting a return on our investment.”

For the time being, talk of an alternative project is still speculative.

The PAC turned in 1,326 petition sheets that “purportedly contain approximately 17,116 signatures” according to Scottsdale City Clerk Carolyn Jagger.

The PAC utilized a mixture of paid and volunteer circulators to collect signatures in the 30 days leading up to the Jan. 3 due date, said Lamar Whitmer, a political consultant working with the PAC.

Whitmer did not provide an estimate on the number of signatures collected by paid circulators or how much the PAC paid circulators.

Jagger confirmed the sheet count but said the individual signature counting would take the following week and said counting was ongoing as of Jan. 8.

The PAC needs 11,930 valid signatures to put the issue before voters.

The Clerk’s office spent approximately two hours counting the sheets on Friday night with two observers from the PAC present, including downtown gallery owner Bob Pejman.

After counting all signatures, the Clerk will transmit the sheets to the Arizona Secretary of State, which will then inspect them and could disqualify some signatures for irregularities.

The Secretary of State’s Office has 20 business days to remove ineligible signatures, generate a five percent sample and send the sample to the County Recorder, who maintains voter rolls, for verification.

The county has 15 business days from the time it receives the sample to verify the accuracy rate of the signature count.

The county may also disqualify signatures for a number of reasons – including failure to provide a signor’s address or a signing date, multiple signatures by the same person and other irregularities. 

PAC leaders were confident they had gathered enough legal signatures.

“It’s amazing how many people showed up,” Wilson said.

Austin, who notarized many of the petitions, said she felt confident in the validity of the signatures turned and that overly-zealous state laws would be the driving factor behind any disqualifications.

“I’m 100 percent confident that the majority of those signatures are good, and the only thing that will make them bad are the ridiculous laws that make you throw out things for writing below the line or putting ditto marks or not completely writing the date,” Austin said.

Any irregularities could pose problems for the PAC as the petitions work their way through the verification process or if Unger chooses to challenge their validity.

Arizona state law requires strict compliance with rules governing referendums and petitions or signatures risk being disqualified.

If the county confirms that the PAC collected enough valid signatures, it is likely that Unger will file a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court to challenge that conclusion.

“We’re going to be looking hard at all the evidence we have and having our lawyers go through it and we will verify signatures,” Unger said.