The Scottsdale City Council approved density increases on hundreds of acres in the city’s northern reaches despite protests by nearby city and county residents.
On Jan. 21, the city council on a 5-2 vote approved zoning amendments for the Fiesta Ranch housing development requested by Scottsdale-based The Lyle Anderson Company increased the allowable density from 116 homes to 227 homes on a 273-acre site south of Rio Verde Drive and east of 136th Street.
Dozens of local residents, many of whom live on adjacent unincorporated county land, turned out at the council meeting to oppose the rezoning, arguing the density increase did not fit in with their desert lifestyle.
County land borders the site to the north, south and east. The western edge abuts both county and Scottsdale land.
“It’s just too dense…as you consider this matter, just know these upzonings pull the rug out from under the existing homeowners who invested in Scottsdale to enjoy the desert,” Scottsdale resident Christine Frank said.
Under the new zoning, the site would feature a mix of R1-18 and R1-43 zoned residential and preserved open space and has an overall density of 0.83 housing units per acre – below the density of one housing unit per acre allowed for rural neighborhoods under the General Plan.
John Berry, a zoning attorney for the development, pointed out the Reata Ranch development across the street from Fiesta Ranch has an overall density of 1.5 houses per acre.
The developer also reduced its original request from 0.95 units per acre after pushback from the city Planning Commission.
Previous zoning on the site included R1-190 and R1-70 zoning, which allowed between 0.21 and 0.55 units per acre.
Berry argued a master planned community from his client was the best option to develop the land while also preserving the surrounding desert and remaining sensitive to the landscape.
Berry cited Lyle Anderson’s other communities, including Desert Highlands and Desert Mountain, and the role the developer played in influencing the city’s current standards for residential development on environmentally-sensitive lands.
“Lyle was a pioneer, but his peers in the industry at the time thought he was crazy,” Berry said. “Lyle went from crazy to copied and…this is another showcase Lyle Anderson's project demonstrates how to environmentally sensitively design in our precious Sonoran Desert.”
This did not persuade opponents.
“I fail to understand how it would even come through planning and get this far because it goes against the Character Area Plan you yourself devised in 2000…” Scottsdale resident Robert Anderson said.
Those disaffected residents found support from council members Solange Whitehead and Kathy Littlefield, who both voted against it.
Littlefield commented Anderson was a respected developer who created good projects in the past, but her constituents simply did not want Fiesta Ranch.
She cited the overwhelming public testimony against the project and the hundreds of emails sent to council in recent days urging a no vote.
“Who do you represent when you’re sitting up here?” Littlefield said. “I represent my constituents. I am your voice on council, and you said no.”
Other council members said they believed Fiesta Ranch was a quality project and complied with city guidelines.
Councilman Guy Phillips acknowledged a yes vote on the development would not be popular politically in an election year but he felt this project would develop the land “to the best possible use.”
He said most of the city had been upzoned at one time or another as the population grew.
“I could make the argument everyone in Scottsdale, including in north Scottsdale, is living in a rezoned area,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he understands residents want to preserve Scottsdale, but the city already preserved over 30,000 acres in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, meaning one-third of the city cannot be developed.
“The sad fact is, if you want to look at it that way, what’s left can be built,” Phillips said.
Whitehead spoke at length about why she opposed the development.
She echoed the arguments of many detractors, stating the development did not comply with the city’s Dynamite Foothills Character Area Plan and argued the rezoning should have triggered a major General Plan amendment, citing rules requiring a major amendment if a land-use category change is requested on a parcel over 15 acres.
“If there are upsides to this proposal and it comes before us in December as a major amendment to the General Plan, I’m sure it will earn five votes,” Whitehead said.
It does not appear the Fiesta Ranch parcels falls under this designation as its land-use category remained “rural neighborhoods” even after the zoning amendment.
Councilwoman Linda Milhaven supported the project, chiding Whitehead for suggesting city staff got it wrong by failing to categorize the change as a major amendment to the General Plan.
“I am not a planning professional and I am not an attorney. However, the city pays for folks to be planning professionals and for attorneys to advise us,” Milhaven said.
“And so while my colleague Councilwoman Whitehead might believe this should be a major General Plan amendment, I believe I have a responsibility to listen to the professional staff,” Milhaven said.
Whitehead also said council should only approve zoning changes like this if there is an obvious public benefit and community support, arguing resident backlash proved the benefit was not there.
“Why would anyone want to invest in Scottsdale if they know and we prove the zoning we have in place is not worth the paper it’s printed on?” Whitehead asked.
A major complaint coming from surrounding property owners also involved increases in traffic and whether or not the city would have to foot the bill for infrastructure necessary to accommodate Fiesta Ranch.
Berry, the zoning attorney for the project, pointed out the developer is responsible for improvements, including storm drain, drainage structures, water and sewer lines and streetlights.
Both Whitehead and Littlefield argued the city would still accrue costs to maintain utility systems and service residents located on the city’s fringes.
The developer is also responsible for widening Rio Verde from 136th to 141st Streets and including two left-turn lanes.
The development, when built out, is projected to generate 2,143 daily car trips, compared to the 1,199 daily trips anticipated under the old zoning, according to a traffic impact study submitted by the developer.
The study’s findings elicited groans from many at the Jan. 21 meeting, some of whom voiced they thought the impact was underestimated.
Scottsdale Public Works Director Dan Worth responded to a question from Mayor Jim Lane by confirming the traffic study complied with industry standards.
Fiesta Ranch is just the most recent in a spate of upzonings and developments threatening to have implications beyond the projects themselves and bleed into the 2020 election.
“I’m attending this meeting in part to observe; observe potential candidates for city council and mayor who will take the side of existing residents,” Frank said. “We want candidates who will listen to compromise and will help us protect the value and enjoyment of our properties.”
Phillips voted in favor of the project while acknowledging it could hurt his support for re-election this year.
“I can tell you right now the vote is going to be 4-3 if I vote no,” Phillips said. “If I vote no, it’s because it’s an election year, and I’m running for re-election. And if I vote yes, all these people are going to say…don’t vote for Guy.”
Phillips was recently an active supporter of the anti-Southbridge Two referendum movement in downtown Scottsdale.
Many of his allies in this fight opposed Fiesta Ranch.
“So, I could vote no, but in my heart, I’d be a coward,” Phillips said. “I think this is good…and I have to vote with my heart. I can’t be a coward and vote no just so I get re-elected.”