Scottsdale’s Development Review Board (DRB) performs some critical functions for our city. Arbitrating neighborhood squabbles is not one of those functions. Neither is serving as an appellate court to review Homeowner Association (HOA) decisions.
But don’t tell that to Council member Littlefield. Last week she presided over what was then one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of governance of our city.
Thursday’s DRB meeting was turned into a hybrid episode of Judge Judy, Night Court (for those old enough to remember that classic) and Jerry Springer. In the course of the fiasco, Littlefield ignored state statutes. She also effectively rewrote the covenants and by-laws of an HOA (much to the chagrin of the HOA, its other residents, and real estate agents who now have no idea what to tell prospective buyers in their disclosure statements).
It started with a tree — a few hundred trees to be candid. A tree that is now banned by many cities, counties (Maricopa County lists this tree on its “Breaking Bad” list) and even some nations.
A tree with destructive roots that wreck the things they come in contact with — especially water pipelines, sewer lines and irrigation lines, but also streets, curbs, sidewalks, decks, foundations and swimming pool walls. If you have these trees in your neighborhood, you’re going to have problems. How soon and how severe are questions worthy of debate.
Whether to remove the trees or try to find ways to fight the destructive spread of the roots is an issue worthy of debate. That debate belongs at the HOA level. Not the city level. But somehow that debate landed in a DRB meeting.
Why anyone other than Littlefield and the Rose Law firm, which represents dissident residents of the subdivision, thought DRB should listen to that neighborhood squabble is beyond me.
In planned communities, residents elect boards. Boards make decisions. The board’s primary duty is always to protect the community from losses. The DC Ranch Board spent five years researching its tree problem, then came to the painful conclusion that the trees needed to be replaced. It could have implemented extensive root barrier programs. But it concluded that other HOAs around the county have tried that solution and it failed.
This included other DMB communities with even bigger Sissoo tree problems than DC Ranch.
That should have been the end of the discussion. If the HOA board acted prudently and followed its own covenants, its decision is final subject to a challenge in court or an appeal to the State Department of Real Estate.
Many property owners disagreed with the DC Ranch HOA Board. They sought a review of the HOA Board decision, which is their right. But Scottsdale’s Development Review Board has no such authority and no right to intervene.
It can review and approve the tree that replaces the other trees, but it has no authority to review or stop the HOA from reaching its own conclusion about how to handle the problem trees.
Enter the drama, the theater, the confusion and the embarrassment. Also enter the moment when our city might have become liable for future damage. If the city tells the HOA it cannot remove trees that might cost millions of dollars in damages, is the city not responsible for the damages?
To add drama, Council member Solange Whitehead was standing in the gallery with the protesters. She has never met a tree she didn’t want to protect and save. That is one of her greatest attributes. I admire her for her conviction to protecting the environment and her zeal. But this time she let her passionate commitment to trees make her look foolish.
Just because you care about trees, you don’t turn the DRB into a comic parody of a small claims courtroom. The Development Review Board doesn’t adjudicate these kinds of issues. The State Department of Real Estate’s HOA Dispute Division does that. (Or the Maricopa County Superior Courts.)
Kathy Littlefield may have done something even worse. The DC Ranch HOA Covenants are not subject to being rewritten by a meddling member of the DRB.
At least they’re not supposed to be. But without any explanation, the DRB instructed the DC Ranch HOA to get a vote of all of the homeowners on this matter — and to seek full consensus. State statutes and the DC Ranch governing documents say the opposite.
The state and the HOA realize that it is impossible to get 120 people to agree Golden Retriever puppies are cute, let alone something as contentious as removing and replacing trees.
This column can’t end without pointing a well-deserved finger at Rose Law, the law firm representing dissident homeowners, who printed posters and arrived in mass to the upper gallery of the Kiva.
It’s one thing to be an advocate for your client. It’s another to turn a DRB meeting into a comic farce.
There are well over 200 HOA’s in Scottsdale. Do we really think it’s a good idea to tell every angry resident in every one of those HOA’s that the DRB is where they should come to resolve their complaint? I think not. I am willing to bet that more than one member of the DRB agrees with me.
Editor’s Note: Mike Norton is a longtime Scottsdale resident and executive director of Athena Foundation Scottsdale.