Paradise Valley residents cry foul over Hillside variance request at Town Hall

A rendering of what the model home could look like at 5500 E. San Miguel Ave. in the Town of Paradise Valley. (Submitted graphic)A rendering of what the model home could look like at 5500 E. San Miguel Ave. in the Town of Paradise Valley. (Submitted graphic) A handful of residents are voicing concern over a request to stray from the Paradise Valley Hillside Development Ordinance --- a series of variances they claim will allow for a 64-foot high structure to be built adjacent to Camelback Mountain. If approved the structure would be 40 feet higher than what is allowed by the Hillside zoning rules, records show. Final ruling on the matter will come from the Board of Adjustment during a meeting set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 9 at Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive. According to the variance application, Tsontakis Architecture LLC is looking to build a model home at 5500 E. San Miguel Ave. in Stone Canyon. The company is seeking five variances to the adopted Hillside Development codes, including:
  • A variance from the 24-foot height limit from natural grade;
  • The overall height limit to exceed 40 feet from the lowest point of disturbed grade to the highest point of the structure;
  • Increased height of retaining wall from the allowable 8-foot height limit;
  • Overhang encroachment on the east, southeast and southwest corner over the 2-foot limit;
  • Permission to exceed the 8-foot limit on the amount of fill.
Town code states the Hillside Ordinance is meant to maintain the “valuable scenic resources” known as the Camelback, Mummy and Phoenix mountains. According to town code, “these lands form, their foothills, and other areas over a 10 percent slope, offer a desirable setting visible to the entire metropolitan area and an intrinsic aesthetic value to the town; therefore they require unique standards resulting from the characteristics of hillside terrain.” The Paradise Valley Board of Adjustment is a seven-member body composed of residents appointed by Paradise Valley Town Council for four-year terms. The board hears appeals to zoning laws and can grant variances based on specific hardships. One Paradise Valley resident is speaking out against the request and says she is surprised the town is even considering it. Julie PaceJulie Pace “We got this notice, then we started talking to the town about the project,” said Paradise Valley resident Julie Pace in an Aug. 18 phone interview. “This is unprecedented and it is in violation of the Hillside Ordinance. But the bigger issue is Camelback Mountain --- this will scar it with a 60-foot building.” Paradise Valley planning staff say they have not offered a recommendation to the Board of Adjustment on the variance application. “When we look at projects, we use the variance criteria that is defined by state statute,” said Paradise Valley Community Development Director Eva Cutro in an Aug. 19 phone interview. “That is what we look at: Will this variance serve as a convenience or hindrance? What are the special circumstances of the site? Are they in harmony with the general purpose or intent of the established zoning?” Ms. Cutro says the town has not rendered a formal opinion on the matter. The applicant, Nick Tsontakis, did not respond to questions provided by the Town of Paradise Valley Independent.
“We haven’t written an official recommendation,” she pointed out. “We have met twice with the applicant and we do believe there are hardships allowing for variances. We have made him (the applicant) aware of staff’s concerns and we have also made him aware of the neighbor concerns.”
Ms. Pace says about 10 to 20 of the surrounding neighbors have banded together to oppose the current variance proposal and have offered to buy the parcel from the applicant and enshrine the lot within a preservation fund. “He (the applicant) needs to come back with a plan that is in line with the Hillside Ordinance,” Ms. Pace said. “We met with him (the applicant) and saw all of the pictures to understand the real size. He said he would go back and talk to his clients.” Ms. Pace says zoning laws exist for a reason, and in this case, Camelback Mountain ought to be protected. “It needs to be in harmony with the mountain,” she said. “This is Camelback Mountain and it has a high priority for the community. There is no way they can build a 64-foot building on Camelback.” Maria SymsMaria Syms Paradise Valley Councilwoman Maria Syms has been working with residents in the area to better understand their concerns. “I did my best to get them some answers,” she said. “Town Hall should always strive to be a better neighbor to our residents and I will do everything I can to make that happen. That is my job as their elected representative.” No recommendations have come from Town Hall regarding the application before the Board of Adjustment, Councilwoman Syms confirms. “I have been assured by our town manager that there has been no recommendation of the variance to the Board of Adjustment,” she said. “The council does not review variances, but I certainly can help facilitate communication between the residents, applicant and staff. “Based on what I have heard to date and my 10 years on the Planning Commission and Hillside Committee, I think it highly unlikely you will see the variance recommended for approval as proposed. It is now up to town staff to work with the community to come up with viable alternatives that would be more in keeping with our town values.” Councilwoman Syms says the Hillside Ordinance exists to provide a municipal mechanism to build on difficult terrain --- such as a mountain. “The Hillside Ordinance already recognizes these unique circumstances by permitting some more flexibility than what may be required on the flat land,” she said. “A variance should only be granted in rare cases where there are undue hardships such as safety or access issues, for example. In those cases, the variance must still be in keeping with our town values of low density and open space, and not intrude on existing neighbors’ quiet enjoyment of their properties.”