Heath: Two wrongs don’t make a right

Posted 3/10/21

Heads up. Scottsdale’s newly seated City Council’s first order of business is to agonize over proposed updates to the city’s General Plan via a series of work study sessions …

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Heath: Two wrongs don’t make a right


Heads up. Scottsdale’s newly seated City Council’s first order of business is to agonize over proposed updates to the city’s General Plan via a series of work study sessions currently being held at Scottsdale City Hall without a live audience.

If you have already exhausted watching everything on Netflix, you can tune in online or on Channel 11. Recorded work sessions are also available on the city’s website: https://www.scottsdaleaz.gov/scottsdale-video-network/council-video-archives/2021-archives. Click player for the work study session you want to see.

However, I should warn you — spoiler alert — it’s like watching a mad match of Scrabble where the objective is to find precise language to tighten the vice on private property rights and raise your taxes.

The starting premise of Scottsdale’s 22-year-old General Plan (which has not been updated since 2000) was that north Scottsdale’s beautiful desert needed to be designated “rural residential” (minimum one home per acre) presumably to thwart growth in the area until the city could afford to purchase the land for the McDowell Sonoran Preserve via a voter authorized increase in Scottsdale sales taxes.

With that land now mostly purchased, why not be a little more open minded to adding a little more diversity in north Scottsdale via the general plan?

You can see that uniquely north Scottsdale rural residential designation (in a metro area of nearly 5 million residents) on page 80 in the following link. It is shaded an unappealing color of yellow.


The council wants to now put a significant portion of than land on “double secret probation” by creating a “Desert Rural” designation for land zoned R1-130, (1 home per 3 acres) and R1-190 (one home per 4.4 acres).

I interpret it to mean a majority of the council (who all live in north Scottsdale) want the General Plan to become a de facto zoning document, which requires land owners to run through a very difficult process if they wish to make the same profit they could make under the current plan subdividing their land into one-acre parcels.

For conversation sake, let’s assume you own 10 acres of land in north Scottsdale, and you have owned it for several years. It is zoned R1-130 and ripe for development, but you can only make a profit if you increase density by rezoning it, because you (not the city) must run streets and utilities to the site, which are awfully expensive.

If the “desert residential” designation is approved by voters, it would require parcels subject to that zoning to go through a major amendment process that occurs only one time per year, requires a minimum of two Planning Commission hearings and requires a super majority vote (5 out of 7 votes) to be adopted. Good luck with that!

To protect property-owners from such draconian rules, the state of the Arizona wisely provides requirements for cities to take into consideration when they update their general plans.

Chief among them is cities need to take into consideration the “economic vitality” of their plans. However, I have yet to hear the words “economic” or “vitality” discussed in Scottsdale’s work study sessions. The common chant is “I want the planning staff to add the words shall and must back into the language.”

To check the economic vitality box, the draft General Plan instead points to sales tax dollars associated with tourism inspired by the Sonoran Desert (a phenomenon that no one on council or staff created).

“If hypocrisy were helium, we would be in near earth orbit now,” (author unknown), because five members of our council are proud to proclaim that they helped run off a long-planned museum (a tourist attraction) at the edge of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve on land that the city purchased for that purpose.

Moreover, all but one of Scottsdale’s resorts are in the bottom third of our city. So, once again, the council is relying upon the bottom third of the city to foot the bill.

Other than that I’m not sure if we glean what the council wants for our city. However we can easily infer what the council does not want in north Scottsdale — traffic, noise, lights, office complexes, shopping centers and affordable housing. They would rather focus on instilling rules for which only the “best developers” need apply.

I am not an attorney, but it feels like a few of Scottsdale’s council members might want to be a little more mindful about what they are saying on record, because there is a voter approved proposition on the books that resulted from push-back to an effort about 20 years ago to put a development circle around metro Phoenix.

If your land ended up in the circle, you could develop it. If not, you could not. Prop 207 came out of that failed effort, and it requires Arizona cities to pay for lost property values as a result of their actions.

Despite that proposition, our City Council appears to be openly attempting to game the General Plan to keep north Scottsdale landowners and downtown Scottsdale building owners from making a profit off their holdings.

Here is another irony. The council wants zoning to dovetail with the general plan in north Scottsdale, while they are simultaneously proposing to undo permitted zoning heights via the general plan in downtown. Rules for thee, but not for me, says our council to its subjects.

You will soon be hearing more about that proposed low profile stink bomb for downtown, I am sure.

In the meantime, I would not advise anyone to stand up in a north Scottsdale HOA meeting and ask, “where is the closest Trader Joe’s?” That is just one missing popular retail tenant. I could name dozens more, because nearly every single granule of undeveloped dirt in north Scottsdale — including the land under the high-tension highwires (which cannot be developed residential) is mind bogglingly designated rural residential. That’s how much thought they put into this.

The same is true for all north Scottsdale’s undeveloped intersections which would be designated commercial in any other city.

Who are our elected officials saving us from? Ourselves?

Developers build projects to satisfy market demand. To that end, the west side of north Scottsdale Road is in the City of Phoenix. The land has not been developed yet because it is under the control of the State Land Department.

That will not be the case forever.

When Phoenix gets a chance to rezone it, they will undoubtedly line it with commercial projects to service north Scottsdale’s artificially constrained submarket. The neighbors on the east side of the road will still get all the drive thrus, the apartments, the mini storages, the senior care facilities, and all the associated traffic, while Phoenix gleefully picks Scottsdale’s sales tax pockets clean once again. This is really getting old.

Bear in mind, the city is currently running infomercials to urge Scottsdale residents to shop locally. Remember the economic vitality requirement? Do infomercials count?

What the City Council is supporting is exactly the opposite of what they are charged to do and what they are asking from Scottsdale residents.

Where’s north Scottsdale’s equity contribution to the city?

Also, where is north Scottsdale’s diversity of product?

The model that our council and staff have designed for north Scottsdale mimics the Town of Paradise Valley, where they have hotels but no retail. To afford that luxury residents pay for city services via property taxes, and those are based on value. The more expensive your home, the more you pay. It is a fair and equitable tax system.

Scottsdale relies upon sales taxes to foot that bill, resulting in the most regressive tax system in the nation.

Never has there been a more geographically privileged area than north Scottsdale. We have a wealthy bedroom community within our borders, and the mayor and new council appear to openly endorse this cushy arrangement.

To make matters worse, it is significantly more expensive to service 100 homes spread over 100-plus acres than a 100-unit condominium complex.

As if that is not bad enough, the mayor now has his sights set on preserving functionally obsolete single-story buildings in downtown Scottsdale that were built 20 years before the Brady Bunch aired on TV.

Old Town Scottsdale is barely contributing to the sales tax base, so its time for redevelopment. If you are a building owner in this area get ready for your exit strategy to be blown up via general plan.

The bottom line is if this plan doesn’t change and gets approved by voters, it is only a matter of time before a future City Council will be discussing how to pay for dozens of years of irresponsible land planning. Meaning, your taxes will go up. A lot.

Editor’s Note: Larry Heath is a resident of Scottsdale.