It’s common knowledge --- and sometimes a point of contention --- Scottsdale is still operating under its 2001 General Plan. But why? What’s been the holdup?
The question of why Scottsdale’s last two attempts at creating and passing a new General Plan doesn’t have one clear answer, but there are some common themes among those in the know on the topic.
Difference in opinion, the topic of development and political strategy all are intertwined in the history of Scottsdale’s General Plan.
A city’s General Plan provides a guide for short-and long-term decision making, as well as day-to-day planning.
The General Plan is the primary tool for guiding the future of the city. It contains the community’s goals and policies on character and design, land use, open space and the natural environment, business and economics, neighborhood vitality, transportation and growth.
In addition to forming the physical shape of the city, the General Plan has other duties such as addressing community services, protecting desert and mountain lands and giving neighborhoods character.
Despite being statutorily required to update the General Plan every decade, the West’s Most Western Town operates under its 2001 plan. However, the city is not out of compliance, longtime city planner Erin Perreault clarifies, because the municipality has regularly approved amendments to be added to the document. The last amendment was approved in November 2019.
Furthermore, while 19 years under one guiding document sounds like a long time --- and many agree it is too long --- the city was already near build-out in 2001, which Ms. Perreault says would be one of the biggest factors in needing an updated plan.
“Scottsdale is headed toward build out, so there aren’t going to be a lot of land-use or other changes that we would be recommending anyway in our General Plan, and that was the case even back in 2011 with that attempt,” Ms. Perreault said. “Because we are mostly built out, it’s going to be mostly tweaking that General Plan --- there isn’t major growth happening anymore because we don’t have large tracts of land left. Unlike the outlier areas that still have to deal with that with their General Plans, we don’t have that anymore.”
Some residents point to the lack of an updated General Plan as a reason some development projects --- which out spoken citizens believe may be poorly designed, or unfit for the proposed area --- are approved by city leaders.
By state statute, General Plans are to be updated every 10 years; however, there aren’t repercussions for not doing so. Once a plan is drafted, it goes to the Planning Commission and City Council for approval. The final step to a General Plan approval is to be ratified by residents via an election.
In 2009, Scottsdale began its first attempt at updating the plan, which is an undertaking that takes serious time commitments on behalf of residents and city officials.
Titled General Plan 2011, this document was approved by City Council but failed to receive a majority of resident approval in a March 2012 election. It failed with 51.98% of the vote.
Months later, in fall 2012, the city began a second process to get a General Plan approved.
This go around included much citizen input --- beginning with a Town Hall made up of 100 community members --- followed by a 25-member Task Force to publicly draft General Plan 2035.
Following the task force draft plan, a series of citywide public outreach events occurred and community comments were collected.
Between fall 2012 up until December 2016, General Plan 2035 was in the works. However, during a Dec. 1, 2016 study session meeting, the City Council shelved the plan, ending its pursuit of voter-approval.
So, what’s been the issue to get residents and elected leaders alike on-board with an updated vision for Scottsdale?
Ms. Perreault, who’s been with the city since the mid-1990s has some theories from the official city perspective.
Meanwhile, residents involved in the planning process --- one of whom was on the City Council at the time the General Plan update was shelved --- point to deeper issues.
One aspect that has emerged among all voices: the topic of development.
Although Ms. Perreault doesn’t have insight into all Scottsdale voters’ thinking in 2012, she says she has an idea from those who provided feedback or went on public record at the time.
“What we do know is what the vocal opposition went onto public record saying at that time. What they were opposed to was really a lot of --- we had four resort cases going through the zoning and General Plan process at the time --- they were very much in disagreement with how those cases were processed,” Ms. Perreault explained. “So they were using the General Plan, itself, even though it really wasn’t changing land use or any kind of processing. The 2011 plan basically was very similar to the 2001 plan, in terms of land-use and process. They were very much opposed to how those cases were being processed at the time.”
Ms. Perreault says this “vocal opposition” that they know of, had a list of items they wanted to see in the General Plan. But, their desires were not aspects that would go into a document of this type, Ms. Perreault says.
“Their list of things included zoning-level types of actions that we could not legally include in the General Plan type of policy document. Regulatory items are housed in our zoning ordinance, by law. So they wanted a lot of that type of regulatory language in the General Plan, that we just couldn’t deliver for them as well,” she explained.
When the 2011 plan failed at the ballot box, the city invested in the resident voice to try again.
“Some of the vocal opposition, as well as others, were really focused on ‘what is the vision going to be for Scottsdale?’ So we did do a new visioning process --- and we hadn’t done that prior in the 2011 process,” Ms. Perreault says.
Through an application process, the city brought together 100 people to shape Scottsdale’s vision. Ms. Perreault says what was created then is believed to still be applicable for the current General Plan draft being worked on now.
After two years of community input, when looking at the next election --- November 2016 --- political strategy took over.
“The community, as well as council, in 2014 we were working to a 2016 ballot. The 2016 ballot was going to have a school district item on it that they didn’t want the General Plan to compete with,” Ms. Perreault explained, pointing to Scottsdale Unified School District’s $229 million bond election.
“So I think shelving it was less about the General Plan at that point, and more about what was going to be on a ballot competing with a General Plan.”
Ms. Perreault points to the City of Surprise, who had a General Plan fail around 2011 when it was on the same ballot as a bond item, stating Scottsdale didn’t want to confuse its voters by doing the same thing.
“So, in 2016, it was a school district bond. The next ballot that we would have tried to attempt would have been for 2018, and that ballot had a city bond item on it,” she said.
“Like I said, I believe it was less about the content of the plan and all that we worked through with the citizen task force to draft that 2035 draft plan, it was more about what was going to be on the ballot at the same time as the General Plan during the election cycles.”
Erin Perreault, City of Scottsdale longrange planner
David Smith, former city treasurer and city councilman, is among those who point to the culture surrounding the planning process.
The 25-member task force, at some point along the way, had a handful of members resign.
“The division that had occurred in the working group certainly continued over to council. It was a concern over whether it was going to lead to more intense development in the northern part of the city,” Mr. Smith explained of the second iteration of the General Plan draft.
In the fall of 2016, a new “desert rural land use” idea emerged from community members looking to preserve larger lots in northern Scottsdale.
“It had to do with density up north, and there was a faction of people who wanted the opportunity --- not to stop development, but to make it a more thoughtful and deliberate process. That’s what you get when say that changing something will require a super majority vote,” he explained, of needing at least five out of seven council members in favor of any item needing the super majority vote.
“So the people who wanted to develop things were deeply opposed to that, and people who wanted to keep the more rural feel and rural life, obviously were in favor of it. It’s a difference of opinion that’s prevailed many times.”
As Mr. Smith recalls, he says because of the increased scrutiny that would be developed on parcels in the northern part of the city, the council decided not to take the plan to the voters.
Over the summer, Scottsdale’s city staff continued to work with both sides of this so-called, “faction” to find a compromise.
“It pacified the competing interests,” he said. “As council returned in the fall, the city staff brought this back to us and said ‘this was really the continuous issue, the super-majority vote required to develop to develop lands of such-and-such size.’ In spite of that agreement, some people still spoke up and said ‘we don’t want any restrictions on this.’”
Mr. Smith says at the time, the majority of the council decided therefore to put the plan on the shelf and not take it to the voters.
“I was in favor of taking it to the voters. Regardless of where you were on the particular issue, whether you agreed with it or didn’t --- I felt like it was an issue voters should decide, not just four people on council,” Mr. Smith said.
“It was obviously a divisive issue. Let’s take it to the voters. But that wasn’t done, and so the team was thanked and sent on their way.”
“It was one of the most stressful, unprofessional committees I’ve ever worked on, let me put it that way."
---Joanne "Copper" Phillips
Longtime resident Joanne “Copper” Phillips was one of the Task Force members who resigned, along with three other members on Jan. 13, 2014.
City documents show that in total, nine individuals resigned.
Ms. Phillips says after the 2011 General Plan failed, she believes the city realized how invaluable resident input is.
“So at that first meeting, it was obvious that those who were asked to be on this task force were not of the same diversity and representation of the residents of this city,” Ms. Phillips said. “I’ll be very honest, it was stacked very heavily with pro-development members who were either zoning attorneys, attorneys who worked for zoning firms, developers, real estate, and some were not even city residents of Scottsdale --- which blew me away.”
As a result of how the task force was comprised, the group split into two factions described by Ms. Phillips as:
Ms. Phillips says in addition to the makeup of the committee, there was an individual who already had two restraining orders.
“And, there was one point where they were doing very vicious, personal attacks, against four of us,” Ms. Phillips explained, stating working on the committee became a testament of endurance.
Ms. Phillips says of people leaving the group, some people left due to other commitments or moving. However, she believes part of it was environment.
“It was one of the most stressful, unprofessional committees I’ve ever worked on, let me put it that way,” she said.
“The facilitator lost control of what was happening. The co-chairs --- one was being attacked and the other sat complaisantly by with a smirk on her face. It was not conducive to having a good result.”
Once the task force made it through all of the components of the draft plan, it got to the point where Ms. Phillips says it was no longer fruitful to have any opinion other than what the “pro-development” group wanted because of the attacks.
“The four of us were beginning to feel that we were probably standing in the way by trying to represent what we were asked to represent,” she said. “And so we basically resigned from the committee that night. We did go through all of the components, we got our input in, it was just the implementation phase left. But to continue to agitate and cause that friction, we saw no purpose to that. I personally felt threatened by the individual who had the two restraining orders.”
Ms. Phillips says in her personal and professional life, she does not have a problem standing her grown --- especially among people with different interests than herself.
“People who are on a different side of the fence than you are, listen and they’re willing to work with you. That experience was not to be had on this General Plan Task Force,” Ms. Phillips explained. “It was a pre-planned agenda, in my opinion, and when we stood in the way of getting their agenda done it was a very negative result.”
South Scottsdale resident, Nancy Cantor, has lived in the city since she was 13 years old.
Ms. Cantor was involved in both the 2011 and 2014 General Plan drafts.
“I think there were some folks in there, again I’m going to say the northern rural areas, who didn’t feel that their position was being addressed appropriately,” Ms. Cantor said of the split task force.
“Having said that, the document we were working on, the 2035, was far more inclusive than we’ve had before.”
Ms. Cantor says she fell somewhere in the middle of all of the differing opinions.
“You also had a faction ... that was aware of the need to provide for development that was really going to fall on the backs of our mature neighborhoods throughout Scottsdale: in-fill development,” Ms. Cantor said.
“We had no standards that you could apply to that. You can see that now, in the past five years, with all of the development that’s taken place in the southern part of Scottsdale.”
Ms. Cantor says she understood what was going on, and why one side was unhappy with how the 2014 task force was moving forward.
“But, being a southern Scottsdale girl and being raised in the same neighborhoods I’m living in now, I very much am concerned about future development, in-fill development, as re-development,” she said.
After all of the time invested in creating the draft plan --- including residents of all ages --- Ms. Cantor agrees the rural neighborhood designation was a very minor part of the draft plan.
“ covers many more things individually than the 2001 General Plan, many more things. But they were things that everyone who had met, worked on, visions and values, wanted to make sure they were addressed by the city,” Ms. Cantor says, pointing out 400 people participated in the process over two and a half years.
When all was said and done, Ms. Cantor says it was upsetting to see how the 2035 General Plan update ended.
“As someone who wanted to be involved in government administration, I was very upset,” Ms. Cantor said of having the plan shelved. “Having something with that many people having participated, earnestly participating, to sit on a shelf is not something government should do any time or any place.”