Despite multiple efforts made by the city and citizens over the past decade, Scottsdale has not updated its general plan in 17 years – a fact that could put the city in violation of state law, according to a veteran Arizona lawmaker.
Following an inquiry by the Progress, Representative-elect John Kavanagh, R-23, consulted with the Legislative Council – a body that provides non-partisan legal services to legislators concerning Arizona law governing municipalities’ general plans.
Arizona state law requires most cities and towns to implement a new general plan every 10 years. Scottsdale voters have not approved a new plan since 2002, though the City Council did adopt an update in 2011 that ultimately failed at the ballot in 2012.
“It’s opinion that the City of Scottsdale needs to resubmit the proposed general plan to voters or submit a new plan in order to comply with state law,” said Matthew Specht, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus.
Arizona law stipulates that a city or town’s general plan is “effective for up to ten years from the date the plan was initially adopted” and that cities with populations of 10,000 or more must then adopt a new general plan and submit it to voters for approval.
If a plan fails with voters, the law states that “The governing body shall either resubmit the proposed new plan, or revise the new plan …for subsequent submission to the voters at the next regularly scheduled municipal election or at a special election scheduled at least one hundred twenty days after the governing body readopted the new or revised new plan.”
“I read it and the city definitely appeared to me to be in violation (of the law),” Kavanagh said. “I spoke with our attorney, and he said they must resubmit it or submit a new plan.”
Scottsdale Long Range Planning Manager Erin Perreault said that the city believes that Scottsdale satisfied the 10-year update requirement during the 2011 process even though it still operates under the 2001 General Plan.
“Planning staff has been advised that the 2011 General Plan update process satisfied Scottsdale’s 10-year state required General Plan update requirement,” she said.
That opinion appears to be at odds with the Legislative Council and some local residents.
Scottsdale resident Howard Myers, a board member with Coalition of Greater Scottsdale, said his group plans to address the update this year.
Myers previously sat on a task force in 2013 and 2014 charged with developing a new General Plan after the first update failed with voters in 2012.
“(The General Plan) is supposed to guide future development and it is supposed to be citizen driven,” Myers said. “Because of a lack of vision, the city is looking at development on a case-by-case basis instead of through an overall plan … I actually believe the city is in violation of state law.”
Perreault said that city is not planning to bring another plan to voters until 2021.
She said that city planning staff, following direction from the City Council, drafted an updated version of the 2001 General Plan that includes new state-requirements.
“Since we satisfied our previous 10-year update requirement with the 2011 process … our next regularly scheduled update to the General Plan would be targeted for 2021,” she said.
It is unclear what, if any, consequences the city faces following the opinion set forth by the Legislative Council.
An Arizona law passed in 2016 allows legislators to request an investigation by the Arizona Attorney General into “any ordinance, regulation, order or other official action adopted or taken by the governing body of a county, city or town that the member alleges violates state law or the Constitution of Arizona.”
That law, which empowers the state to withhold shared state funding from municipalities that are found in violation, was used to challenge local laws like Bisbee’s plastic bag ban.
Kavanagh said he plans to speak with Mayor Jim Lane about the issue but has no plans to request an Attorney General’s investigation.
“I don’t just run around filing complaints against cities, especially when I have not received a formal complaint from a resident first,” Kavanagh said.
Joanne Phillips, the former task force member, said she had previously sent letters to Kavanagh, Senator-elect Michelle Ugenti-Rita and Rep. Jay Lawrence requesting they look into the matter but had not received a response.
The general plan is a broad blueprint that outlines a city’s plans for future growth. According to the City of Scottsdale, the general plan “is the primary tool for guiding the future of the city.”
Joanne “Copper” Phillips, another COGS board member who sat on the city’s General Plan Task Force in 2013 and 2014, said that an outdated general plan can create a host of problems for a city, including a lack of affordable housing options for young families and workers that support the city’s tourism industry.
“It all ties back to the general plan,” Phillips said. “When you don’t think ahead to the collateral damage you’re bringing by catering to developers and thoughtless business aspirations, you are not helping your community.”
Leslie Dornfeld, owner of Phoenix-based community planning firm PLAN*et, said that cities update the general plan for several reasons, including to reflect population growth and provide new residents the opportunity to comment on the direction of future growth.
Since 2001, the population of Scottsdale has grown from just over 211,000 to approximately 250,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Dornfeld, who has worked on general plans for Queen Creek, Tolleson and other entities, said updates also give cities the opportunity to reflect land use changes that have occurred since the last plan was adopted.
Updates also can reduce time and costs associated with new development by reducing the need for general plan amendments, Dornfeld noted.
New plans can also give the city the chance to examine planning issues related to how development has affected health and climate.
The city has made two efforts in the past several years to update the plan.
The Scottsdale City Council convened a 19-member community working group from 2009 to 2011 to begin work on a new General Plan to comply with state law.
The group, made up of one member from each of the city’s boards and commissions, conducted community outreach and developed a plan known as General Plan 2011.
“The majority of the 2011 Plan included goals and policies retained from the City of Scottsdale General Plan 2001, as well as the addition of new state statute required elements,” Scottsdale Long Range Planning Manager Erin Perreault said.
The plan was narrowly defeated in a March 2012 special election with 52 percent of voters opposing the measure.
The city began the process again in 2012. Following a stakeholder meeting attended by over 100 people, the City Council organized a new 25-person task force to draft a new general plan.
That task force presented General Plan 2035 to council in 2014 and the city continued to conduct public outreach for the next two years.
The city never adopted General Plan 2035. In fact, the City Council never even brought the plan before voters due to disagreements over a rural land use proposal.
Joanne Phillips, who supported the proposal, said it provided increased protections to preserve large parcels of land for residents who wanted to use those parcels as horse properties and other uses.
There are demands for larger lots; this is the Arabian Horse Show city,” she said. “Unless you have land space for people to bring horses and raise horses, they will leave. That’s why so many people have left Scottsdale and moved to unincorporated land.”
She said the proposal was a compromise created by a subset of current and former taskforce members, some of whom approved of greater protections for large rural plots from being split by landowners or developers and others who were initially resistant to the idea.
At a Dec. 1, 2016 study session, the council voted 4-3 to direct staff to update General Plan 2001 to incorporate state requirements as well as an arts and culture update worked on by the task force.
Councilmembers Linda Milhaven, Suzanne Klapp, Guy Phillips and Virginia Korte voted for the direction. Mayor Jim Lane and Councilmembers Kathy Littlefield and David Smith voted against it.
Korte said she hesitated to support the rural land protections proposal because it could have a devaluation effect on some landowners who were not included in the compromise process.
Joanne Phillip said the measure was strongly opposed by the development community.
In effect, the direction stalled General Plan 2035.
Despite voting to simply update the 2001 Plan, Councilmember Phillips expressed disappointment in the result of the vote.
He said that “it wasn’t the council that came up with this idea; it was the citizens and not only that, it was both sides of the coin that worked all summer and came up with this and I thought this was a good compromise.”
“We had a good compromise, certain people didn’t want to do it and now we are stuck with an old plan … this is a sad day for Scottsdale once again,” Phillips said.