SmokeTree Resort leaves certain components behind as second round of municipal deliberations loom

The latest in a series of re-submitted renderings to the Town of Paradise Valley for considerations of approval of a proposed redevelopment project at SmokeTree Resort.
The latest in a series of re-submitted renderings to the Town of Paradise Valley for considerations of approval of a proposed redevelopment project at SmokeTree Resort.
Submitted Graphic
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After receiving a proverbial thumbs down on redevelopment plans, SmokeTree Resort has returned to Paradise Valley officials with a renewed request for a special use permit amendment.

In an effort to find a viable option to redevelop the legacy resort, SmokeTree has cut plans of a for-sale product on the 5.3-acre campus, in addition to lowering the unit count to 122 hotel rooms, removing balconies from perimeter buildings and capping building height at 36 feet.

Paradise Valley Town Council, on Nov. 21, reviewed the new redevelopment plans and provided feedback to owner Taylor Robinson. Ultimately, officials pointed to some additional information needed before receiving the green light.

SmokeTree Resort has been operating since 1954 at 7101 E. Lincoln Drive, adjacent to the municipality’s border. Earlier this year, the legacy resort property changed hands for a reported $10 million, and new ownership is eying a new chapter for the boutique resort.

The original resort, which had been maintained in perpetuity, is now under the guise of Phoenix-based Gentree LLC.

On March 5, the Planning Commission hosted a public hearing, followed by a vote on the project. The Commission voted 4-3 to recommend denial, with Commissioners Daran Wastchak, Thomas Campbell and Jonathan Wainwright dissenting.

The Planning Commission held 10 meetings on the project prior to its denial vote.

During the Nov. 21 Town Council study session meeting, Community Development Director Jeremy Knapp ultimately was seeking direction from the elected officials on how to proceed forward with the SUP amendment request since the project has been updated since last spring.

Possible next steps included a further work study by the council in preparation for a public hearing, or, refer the plans back to Planning Commission for further consideration.

Mr. Knapp says details to be discussed include preparing an ordinance for a public hearing, in addition to density, lot coverage, floor area, open space, signage, parking, landscaping, setbacks, height, right of way, and impacts to adjacent uses.

“All of those things need to be reviewed and discussed on the revised application,” Mr. Knapp said. “There was a lot of discussion about that on the previous application at the Planning Commission level, and some of that carries over, but some of it’s different because of the revised application.”

--- Jeremy Knapp, Paradise Valley community development director

Due to questions and concerns levied by some of the councilmembers, Mayor Jerry Bien-Willner said the council wasn’t quite ready to make a decision on how to proceed at that time.

The council requested town staff bring the application back at a future meeting where staff identifies how the application does or does not address items identified in the Statement of Direction. That will most likely happen in January, Mr. Knapp said, after the meeting.

The ambiguous nature of setbacks

The SmokeTree Resort’s updated plans have reconfigured the site and building layout, and removed underground parking. Now, the perimeter of the project is surface parking area, with all buildings in the center of the 5.3-acre parcel.

The project still includes:

  • 122 traditional hotel guest room keys, 20 of which are detached suites;
  • A restaurant and bar/lounge;
  • A rooftop outdoor bar and lounge;
  • Accessory uses such as a fresh food market, a cafe, pop-up retail; a coffee shop and a florist; and
  • Indoor/outdoor event space including a pavilion for banquets and meetings, and a pool.

The project’s setbacks are 98-feet on the north; 45-feet on the east; 60-feet on the south; and 75-feet on the west.

The way the setbacks were calculated from the north --- which includes half of Lincoln Drive --- gave the council pause; after the roadway dedication, the setbacks from the north would be 33 feet, Mr. Knapp said.

Both Vice Mayor Scott Moore and Councilman Paul Dembow found trouble with that scenario.

“I think that’s not quite right,” Mr. Moore said.

Followed by Councilman Paul Dembow, “You can’t propose that the property in the middle of Lincoln will remain their property.”

Mr. Knapp clarified, the applicant is proposing the property lines remain where they are, and the resort would dedicate to the town a roadway easement across the property.

Mr. Bien-Willner stated there is some dispute about who owns the property that makes up Lincoln Drive.

“Not that we need to delve into this deeply right now, but that’s assuming that’s actually owned by the applicant,” Mr. Bien-Willner said. “It’s my understanding there’s some ambiguity about who may own --- I know the applicant asserts they own that, but there may be a question looming about who may own the paved area of Lincoln.”

Attorney Andrew Miller said there are other contrary indications to be explored with the applicant at a later time.

Mr. Robinson stated they submitted plans based on what their ownership paperwork shows.

“The reason for portraying it that way, is that’s the legal description to the title, which we hold,” he said. “That’s what we were asked for, and that’s what we gave.”

The perception of reality

The applicant has submitted two site plans, one which shows how the resort would look and a second that seeks approval of maximum heights for the entire area.

“We are looking at a site plan of how they propose to develop the site,” Mr. Knapp said. “As well as, what you might call bubble zoning for the site overall, with what the maximum heights could be within those bubbles.”

The goal, according to the town officials, is that once the maximum heights for the parcel are approved, their resort plans could be finessed as long as it doesn’t exceed the approved heights.

“Does staff deem that a complete application, in that sense?” Mr. Bien-Willner asked. “Does staff require a specific building elevation and things like that, for the site? Or is that open for interpretation?”

Mr. Knapp said the town has done projects both ways --- including very specific plans for some projects, and others that are less static.

“This highlighting of the roadway issue, the easement, the things that have come up in connection with other contemplating these projects that are ongoing I have to admit that it was not my understanding from the original presentation that the calculations were keyed off counting the blacktop on Lincoln,” Mr. Bien-Willner said.

“It was my impression the Planning Commission may not have understood that when they reviewed the original plan.”

Mr. Dembow agreed he also didn’t know the setbacks were calculated using the roadway.

“I certainly would have requested a recalculation. I don’t know that we would ever considered a paved, active 60-year-old roadway as part of the open space or any other ratio,” Mr. Bien-Willner said.

In terms of the bubble zoning diagram, Mr. Moore says he is pretty confused on how he missed that fact.

“I’m looking at elevations in here --- how do you figure out what the visibility triangle is going to be, how it impacts the neighbors --- if this is all just conceptual? Then there’s nothing to look at. We really should just have the bubble diagram in front of us and that’s it,” he said. “Nothing else matters, because they can do anything they want with it. The whole thing can be 36 feet, you’re saying.”

--- Scott Moore, Paradise Valley vice mayor

Mr. Dembow shared Mr. Moore’s concerns as well.

“I’m comfortable with what I can see and approve,” Mr. Dembow said.

True intentions?

The Town Council gave Mr. Robinson an opportunity to weight-in on the plans behind the resort’s application.

He said the intent behind the submittal is not to defer completely to bubble zoning.

“As we’ve discussed with staff over the course of the amendment process, the site plan has been detailed out in such a way you can reply upon it,” Mr. Robinson said.

“The intent is anything shown in the site plan would be in substantial compliance with the final drawings to be reviewed by staff for a permit to be issued. If anything varies between the site plan that you see on that plan and the site that is submitted for permitting, that if it is within substantial compliance to that site plan then staff can go ahead and review it. If not, we’d get kicked back for an amendment process to consider those changes.”

Mr. Robinson says the bubble zoning wouldn’t handicap the resort from the ability for a future amendment process.

“The site plan is really what we’re asking for,” he said. “To resolve this issue would be as simple as taking the draft language in the SUP and changing the order of two controlling items. So the site plan would control in place of this exhibit.”

Mr. Robinson said while he doesn’t view the bubble zoning diagram as an impediment, if it’s the will of the council to remove it --- it is easy to do so.

Members of the council stated they think the renewed redevelopment plans are a great improvement from the first iteration and want the plans to be as transparent as possible for residents and neighbors of the resort.

“You’ve come a long way, you’ve done a lot of work --- to not be able to look at all of your elevations, your buildings, your heights and setbacks --- to throw that into something that could be reconfigured, is really hard to represent that to anybody,” Mr. Moore said.

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