Alexander: What’s going on at Scottsdale Planning Commission?

Posted 6/16/21

The Scottsdale Planning Commission has been a focus for Mayor Ortega during his first semester in office.

The mayor has taken a strong stance on conflicts of interest, and prefers commissioners …

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Alexander: What’s going on at Scottsdale Planning Commission?


The Scottsdale Planning Commission has been a focus for Mayor Ortega during his first semester in office.

The mayor has taken a strong stance on conflicts of interest, and prefers commissioners who are “ordinary citizens” over those who have expertise in planning and zoning. Resident input is essential for projects to be successful and ensure they fit the neighborhood.

All commissioners must be residents of Scottsdale. But, planning and zoning decisions also require deep understanding of property rights and ordinances and industry norms, otherwise projects become influenced too much by opinions and too little by expertise. Commissioners are expected to advise, to improve projects and add value to the council’s decision making, not dismiss studies and staff’s guidance. Lack of professional experience and behavior have become problems for this Planning Commission.

One of Mr. Ortega’s first acts of office was the removal of 5-year veteran Commissioner Prescott Smith. The mayor had every authority to question Smith’s above-average number of recusals; there is no denying that Smith’s availability was a challenge at times. However, Ortega moved aggressively to remove Smith, without first developing standards for Smith’s replacement. The abruptness was met with both apologetic and contentious responses by Ortega’s Council colleagues.

Ortega has so far appointed two new commissioners to round out the seven-person Board: Christian Serena and Barney Gonzalez. Mr. Serena served from 2017 to 2020, but was not re-appointed by the prior council because of his often combative attitude towards staff and applicants.

Mr. Gonzalez was Mr. Ortega’s campaign chairman. Gonzalez is now the fifth appointed commissioner lacking industry experience. In just a few months, Mayor Ortega has significantly changed the composure of the Planning Commission from a technical advisory board to one of laypersons.

Is this balance?

Good projects need both resident feedback to blend with the community, and industry expertise to transform feedback into bricks-and-mortar reality that pencils out for the investors. When the community gets involved, projects get better. This partnership was on display during the June 10 Planning Commission meeting about the new Greenbelt 88 project.

Greenbelt 88 has come down in scope, honed its public benefits and open spaces, and will have stipulations ensuring it delivers on its plans for retail within 2.5 years — improvements driven by the community’s feedback. The design continues to improve through each step of the entitlement process, with expert input from people like Planning Commissioner Bill Scarborough, who asked specific questions and measured progress against specific changes.

Mayor Ortega’s appointee Mr. Gonzalez was sincere in expressing community concerns, but offered no specifics or ordinance-based objections in his very brief comments. Gonzalez sounded like a concerned neighbor speaking three minutes during public comment, not a Commissioner. Mr. Gonzalez was in just his second meeting as a Commissioner, his first-ever board appointment for Scottsdale.

Surprisingly, Mr. Gonzalez supported himself to be the Planning Commission chair at his very first ever planning meeting despite being a newcomer.

Gonzalez was also supported by Ortega appointee Christian Serena and Commissioner Barry Graham, over more seasoned and experienced Commissioner Higgs. A brand-new commissioner receiving three votes to be chair defies logic.

Mayor Ortega’s second appointee, Commissioner Serena, spoke broadly about macro trends and south Scottsdale. His research and strong opinions about prior projects, however, were highly political and didn’t translate to the advisory task for Greenbelt 88. A professional approach would be to judge each project on its own merits, and respect the property rights of each applicant and one’s role as a Commissioner.

Serena delayed the project insisting on more community feedback but failed to define measurable goals or specific benchmarks for improvement. That’s not leading forward or standing up for the community; it’s delivering an unvetted hot potato of emotions to the council.

Commissioner Graham called himself inexperienced multiple times during the June 10 meeting, and came off as abusive to city staff. Graham argued with the city attorney about asylum seekers in Scottsdale and COVID protocols, despite being informed repeatedly that these topics had nothing to do with the Planning Commission.

Mr. Graham should keep his personal politics in his personal context. As a representative of Scottsdale speaking from the dais, he should support the mayor and city manager on their policy decisions. Again, the goal of the Planning Commission isn’t to argue over immigration policies or social distancing. The job is to listen to residents, work with applicants to develop projects that most benefit our community, and offer detailed critiques on projects that fail to meet our well-defined standards.

Grandstanding is disrespectful to the city’s professional staff and Scottsdale’s potential investors, and disruptive to the city’s brand. It is incumbent upon Mayor Ortega to redirect his appointees on the expectations of civility and to work collaboratively with city staff and applicants.

Editor’s Note: Jason Alexander is a resident of Scottsdale, a long-time citizen advocate, and helped lead the Prop 420 initiative to protect the Preserve.