After a contentious years-long battle over the future of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, Scottsdale voters unequivocally threw their support behind Proposition 420, the city charter amendment giving them final say in new development on the site.
With 345,000 ballots in the county still uncounted as of presstime Friday, unofficial returns had the Prop 420 passing with with a likely insurmountable 70 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results.
“We had the winning message and we were on the right side of the winning message,” said Jason Alexander, a vocal Prop 420 supporter who founded the NO DDC organization.
No DDC was originally organized to oppose Desert Discovery Center, now Desert Edge, the proposed $68-million education center that would go on the preserve near the Gateway Trailhead.
The potential Desert Edge project prompted Alexander and other Scottsdale citizens to gather over 30,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot.
With the proposition’s fate decided, city officials must begin to figure out how the charter amendment will affect operations on the preserve.
The charter amendment includes some exceptions to the rule requiring a popular vote to build on the preserve.
Those exceptions include new trails approved by the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission, some trail or trailhead maintenance and “appropriate restoration efforts within the preserve.”
However, there are still some questions left unanswered, such as how the amendment will affect the construction of fire breaks and other fire protection measures.
The charter amendment does not specifically address the preserve’s fire plan, and a city spokesperson said “the city’s practice is to wait until the voters have spoken before assessing the potential impact of ballot propositions.”
The lopsided vote was something of a surprise as both supporters and opponents of the bill were vocal throughout the election cycle, creating an image of a city evenly-divided on the issue.
In fact, arguments submitted against the proposition in the city’s official election pamphlet outnumber arguments for it 51 to 19.
If the vote is any indication, those optics were misleading.
The win did not come as a surprise to Brad Kunde, chairman of the Protect Our Preserve PAC that supported the proposition, though.
“We’ve been in the streets since January talking to citizens and we’ve had overwhelming support from the citizens,” he said at an election night party at The Vig in northern Scottsdale. “I am proud of our citizens, who understand the magnitude of this vote.”
Likewise, Betty Janik, treasurer for the Protect Our Preserve nonprofit, said donations to her group indicated a majority of citizens were against building on the preserve.
“When I saw the donations come in, I knew we had broad-based support,” she said.
The Protect Our Preserve nonprofit, organized to inform citizens about the proposed development on the preserve and raise money to oppose the development, was the primary donor to the Protect Our Preserve PAC and took in over $105,000 in 2017, according to tax filings.
The debate brought a lot of money into the local election, with political action committees on both sides of the debate bringing well over $100,000 during the campaign season.
The no side, namely the Protect Your Preserve PAC, benefited from big dollar donations from the real estate and development communities.
The PAC brought in over $119,000 over the course of the campaign, including $47,409 from the National Association of Realtors, $5,000 from Meritage Homes and nearly $20,000 from individuals with ties to development and real estate, including executive from DMB and Los Angeles-based Strategic Legacy Investment Group.
The yes side did some serious fundraising of its own as the Protect Your Preserve PAC brought in over $108,000.
The PAC received the bulk of its contributions from the Protect Your Preserve nonprofit.
Janik, treasurer for the nonprofit, said her organization received $58,000 in matching funds from an anonymous Scottsdale couple she only identified as longtime residents.
They also benefited from a fundraiser hosted by Chicken Soup for the Soul co-founder Mark Victor Hansen, Janik said.
Proposition 420 was arguably the most divisive political topic in recent history in Scottsdale and prompted a flood of character attacks online against prominent figures on both sides of the debate.
Proponents and Opponents also had relatively even support from a slew of current and former Scottsdale government officials as well.
Notably, incumbent councilmember Kathy Littlefield and Solange Whitehead, who both won, supported 420.
Meanwhile, incumbent Linda Milhaven, a vocal Prop 420 critic, also was re-elected.
The two council candidates on the outside looking in, incumbent David Smith and challenger Bill Crawford, landed on either side of the issue, with Smith against 420 and Crawford supporting it.
Beyond current candidates, the list of community members for and against the proposition reads like a who’s who of Scottsdale personalities.
The “pro” camp included former Mayor Mary Manross, past McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission Chairmen James Heitel and Gerald Miller, former Councilman Bob Littlefield and current Councilmembers Guy Phillips and Suzanne Klapp.
The “no” camp included former Councilman Wayne Ecton, Retired Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve Director Robert J. Cafarella, current Councilwoman Virginia Korte and former City Manager Jan Dolan, who chaired the Protect Your Preserve PAC.