Desert Edge project

The proposed Desert Edge project would be built just south of the Gateway Trailhead, a popular spot for residents and tourists.

The debate over the future of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and the potential Desert Edge development – formerly the Desert Discovery Center or DDC – has become confusing for Scottsdale residents who are deciding how to cast their vote.

Do voters want to “Protect Our Preserve” or “Protect Your Preserve?” Will they vote yes on 420 and say no to DDC, or vote no on 420 and say yes to DDC?

Between the political action committees supporting either side – Protect Our Preserve PAC and Protect Your Preserve PAC – and the rhetoric coming from some supporters of campaigns for and against Proposition 420, it can become confusing for voters, who can start casting early ballots Wednesday.

For the record, the Protect Our Preserve PAC supports voting yes on Proposition 420. That would create a city charter amendment requiring a public vote to approve any alterations to preserve land and regulate the use of city funds designated for the preserve.

Detractors have argued this will bog down or prevent nearly all alterations, ­ such as building new fire breaks or watering holes for wildlife.

Proponents say this is not the case.

Vocal Prop 420 supporter Jason Alexander said that the charter amendment language contains several exceptions that address minor alterations and safety issues.

Those exceptions include allowing for the building of new trails approved by the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission and maintenance on existing trails that were built or approved before the charter amendment takes affect.

It would also allow for maintenance of trails approved later under guidelines outlined in the proposition.

It would also allow for “appropriate restoration efforts within the preserve,” according to the official Proposition 420 text – which Alexander said would encompass adding watering holes.

The text of the amendment also allows for the expansion of trailhead parking “as depicted in each approved trailhead plan,” and the completion of Little Granite, Fraesfield and Pima/Dynamite trailheads in accordance with trailhead plans approved before the amendment takes effect.

Alexander said the preserve has its own fire plan that would not be affected by the charter amendment.

However, the amendment does not specifically address that fire plan.

A city spokesperson said Scottsdale has fire response plans for the McDowell Sonoran Preserve that it updates regularly, though many details are kept confidential to maintain security and public safety.

The city will wait until voters have spoken before assessing the potential impact Prop 420 could have on those plans.

The Protect Your Preserve PAC, which filed organization papers with the city in August, urges no on Proposition 420. If the proposition fails, the power to alter  the Preserve would remain with the council.

Detractors have argued that the proposition language is too vague and would put too much power in the hands of an unelected body – the McDowell Sonoran preserve Commission.

Members of that commission are appointed by the City Council.

“This is not good governance,” said Jan Dolan, former city manager and chairperson of the Protect Your Preserve PAC.  “You don’t just change the charter for a particular project you fear or don’t like.”

Dolan said the charter is like the Constitution and that any proposed changes should be handled via an official review committee and a review by Council.

Mayor Jim Lane said he attempted to bring the issue before City Council two years ago but received little support.

While support for Proposition 420 does not necessarily mean opposition to the Desert Edge project, the two issues are inextricably linked.

If passed, the charter amendment would require a vote by Scottsdale residents to approve Desert Edge – the proposed $68-million, 47,586-square-foot education and tourism center that would be built south of the Gateway Trailhead.

No DDC, an anti-Desert Edge organization run by pro-Prop 420 residents, including Alexander, said it would open up the preserve “to future commercial development,” according to its website.

Sam Campana, executive director of the Desert Discovery Center Inc. nonprofit behind the proposed Desert Edge, rejected that claim and said the project is about education. She added that it would include facilities geared towards providing informational experiences to visitors about the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

“I continue to believe the best way to preserve the preserve is to have the most people know the most about it,” she said.

Campana said she believes many people who signed the petitions to put Prop 420 on the ballot did so “under false pretenses” due to the claims about commercial development.

Both sides have found support on the City Council.

Mayor Lane and Councilmembers Suzanne Klapp, Kathy Littlefield and Guy Phillips have supported voting yes on Prop 420.

Lane said he congratulated Proposition 420 supporters for going through the proper channels and gathering the signatures necessary to put the issue on the ballot.

“I told them I was for 420 at that point in time because I want the public to weigh in,” Lane said.

Klapp, Phillips and Littlefield each wrote arguments supporting Prop 420 in the city’s official voter pamphlet.

In their individual statements, Councilmembers Klapp and Phillips each applauded the grassroots effort that gathered enough signatures to put Prop 420 before voters.

 “I support Proposition 420 because it is what a large portion of our residents want,” Klapp wrote.

She said she had always anticipated a large project on the preserve would go before voters, who would have to approve general obligation bond funding.

 However, the latest plans for Desert Edge would use bed tax revenues and dedicated preserve funds that do not require voter approval – a move that drew the ire of many residents.

Phillips wrote that he became disillusioned by city leaders’ attempts to build a Desert Discovery Center for years despite what he characterized as “a large outcry from our residents.”

In her statement, Littlefield wrote that she has always been opposed to building a discovery center on the preserve without voter approval.

On the other side, Councilmembers Virginia Korte, David Smith and Linda Milhaven all support voting no on Prop 420. Both Korte and Milhaven contributed statements to the city’s voter pamphlet advocating for residents to vote no.

In an email newsletter she also shared on social media, Korte wrote that she agreed with the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce, which recently came out against Prop 420.

Korte wrote that she believed Proposition 420 “lacks clarity and is open to interpretation” and empowered unelected volunteers on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission to make decisions about the future of the preserve and circumvent the City Council.

Councilman David Smith said he respects the citizens who collected signatures to put Prop 420 on the ballot and urges all voters to read the proposition text to understand it fully.

Smith said he believes the purpose of the charter amendment is not to preserve land but “to narrowly define how this recreational preserve will be developed in the future.”

He also echoed allegations made in a complaint filed with the city about the alleged use of dark money in the pro-Prop 420 campaign.

The complete text and ballot language for Proposition 420 is available on the city’s website at scottsdaleaz.gov/elections.

Voters will also receive a voter pamphlet approximately 30 days before the election containing 19 arguments submitted in favor of the Proposition and 51 arguments submitted against.

The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy – a nonprofit that helps maintain the Preserve – has chosen not to take sides on the prop. "We encourage every citizen to carefully review both sections of Proposition 420," it said in part.

Information: ScottsdaleAZ/Elections/110618ElectionPamphlet.pdf.