The McDowell Sonoran Preserve

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve was the topic of heated debate for the past several years, with voters ultimately deciding to protect the preserve from future development by passing Proposition 420.

Scottsdale voters overwhelmingly supported a charter amendment to provide greater protections against development on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, approving Proposition 420 by a 42 percent margin.

But now what?

Though Proposition 420 is settled, the city now has to implement the charter amendment, a process that could stretch into 2019.

According to city spokesman Kelly Corsette, the charter amendment will not take effect until it is signed by the governor. That cannot happen until after the City Council’s official election canvass, which is scheduled on Nov. 26.

However, that canvass could be delayed because it cannot take place until the city receives final election tallies from the Maricopa County Recorder’s office.

As of Friday, the Maricopa County Recorder still had nearly 80,000 outstanding ballots to process.

“The vote canvass is not scheduled until the end of November, so it will probably not be implemented until the first of year,” said Howard Myers, president of Protect Our Preserve, a nonprofit organization that advocates against development on the preserve.

The nonprofit contributed the majority of funds received by the political action committee of the same name that supported Proposition 420 to the tune of $89,000.

Though some members of the City Council opposed the measure, Myers is not worried about the city implementing the amendment appropriately.

“They have to put that exact language that was on the ballot in the charter,” he said.

Councilwoman Linda Milhaven, who won re-election and opposed Prop 420, said, “We must respect the voters’ decision (on 420) and move on to work on other issues in our community.”

Myers said there was some room for interpretation in the amendment – such as whether or not a fire break qualifies as a trail that can be approved by the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission – but that those issues did not concern him.

“What we were trying to prevent is buildings in the preserve, and that is pretty clearly (prohibited),” Myers said.

How the amendment affects those unspecified issues, such as firebreaks, has not yet been determined, and issues will be addressed on a case by case basis, Corsette said.

“As matters arise, the city will make a determination of what impact, if any, the charter amendment has on each set of circumstances,” Corsette said.

Myers, for his part, said he is now focused on how to use the momentum from this election to address other issues, like the city’s need for significant funds to invest in its infrastructure.

“Where we go from here is a bigger question,” Myers said. “It has nothing to do with Proposition 420. Question 1 barely passed, and it is clear that voters are still not happy with the council and not happy with the tax increases.”

Though Proposition 420 did not outright kill the Desert Edge project – the proposed $68-million education center on the preserve that sparked the citizen petition to put 420 on the ballot in the first place – it jeopardizes the center’s future.

Sam Campana, executive director of the Desert Discovery Center Inc. nonprofit that was contracted by the city to develop the Desert Edge plans, said the organization’s board will meet later this month to discuss its next steps.

She said the City Council’s last official directive prior to its Nov. 13 meeting was to have staff investigate alternative locations for Desert Edge.

“We were contractors to the city. They will decide the next move,” Campana said.

On Nov. 13, Councilwoman Virginia Korte, who opposed Prop 420, made a motion that was unanimously approved by the council to take up the Desert Edge issue at a future meeting.

Korte’s motion was to discuss and possibly act to stop looking for an alternative location for Desert Edge, cease further studies regarding a business plan for the project and release the portion of bed tax dollars currently reserved for Desert Edge.

If the council moves forward with those actions, it would, as Korte said, “finally put the Desert Edge to bed.”

A date has not yet been set for the council to take up those questions.

If the city chooses not to move forward with Desert Edge, it means the city will have spent over $1 million in recent years on an abandoned project.

In 2015, the City Council approved a contract with Desert Discovery Center Inc. for $726,900 to evaluate an existing city feasibility study for what was then called Desert Discovery Center and participate in the design and development of the project.

To date, the city has paid $726,699.99 on that contract.

The city also approved a contract with Swaback Partners in 2016 for $521,090 to provide design services for the center.

To date, the city has paid $444,681.56 on that contract.

Overall, the city has spent $1,425,704 of a $1,696,900 transfer to the CIP fund approved by the City Council in 2016 to fund the Desert Discovery Center capital project.

When the charter amendment is implemented, Desert Edge would have to be put before Scottsdale voters for approval before it could be built on the preserve.

Campana, the Desert Discover Center executive director, does not see that happening, stating, “For now, I don’t see an appetite to proactively put it on the ballot.”