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City, state plans at odds over South Mountain 620

This is the final article in a three-part series focusing on the issues surrounding the state trust land parcel named South Mountain 620. Today's article examines possible outcomes for the land.

By Doug Murphy Staff Writer

For the last two years the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee, supported by Phoenix city councilman Greg Stanton, has looked for a way to preserve the entire 620 acres of state trust land west of 19th Avenue as open space, or at the least, reduce the number of homes allowed on the land.

But for state Land Commissioner Mike Anable, who has a fiduciary responsibility to manage state trust land for the greatest return possible, efforts to cut the number of homes are "more emotion based land use planning than economic based land use planning."

Mike Foster, of the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee and a leader in the effort to cut the number of rooftops allowed on the parcel, disagrees with Anable's position.

"Economics is just one factor in land use planning. He's casting it that it's the only factor," he said.

For residents, Anable's insistence on auctioning the land to a developer is frustrating.

For Anable, opposition to sale of the trust land is frustrating.

Growth marches on

"I think this piece of property, because it is trust land, is being looked at differently by the community and they are seeking to try and correct some of the planning deficiencies that have happened in Ahwatukee Foothills all on this piece of property," Anable said.

Besides, he points out, "Phoenix has issued 600 building permits a year for the last three years or four years in The Foothills. During that period of time I have held this property off the market they have issued that many or more home permits immediately adjacent."

From June 1993 to June 1999, Phoenix Planning Department records indicate that in all of Ahwatukee Foothills, 10,288 building permits were issued. The population also grew from an estimated 43,821 in 1993 to 75,961 in 2000.

Differing plans

The city of Phoenix is in the process of rezoning and changing the land use designation on the South Mountain 620, bordered by 19th Avenue on the east, 27th Avenue on the west, South Mountain to the north and the Pecos Road alignment to the south.

If approved by the Phoenix City Council there would be no homes north of Chandler Boulevard's future alignment. The land would be home to no more than 1,493 houses, a 240-acre preserve and park, a 70-acre site school site and 26 acres of commercial land to service the area.

The city's plan would cut the number of allowable homes from a maximum of 2,400, approved by the council in 1993 to a cap of 1,493.

In March, voters approved up to $10 million in bond money specifically for purchase of state trust land in Ahwatukee Foothills which can be used to help reimburse either the state Land Department or a developer who must turn land over to the city.

The state Land Department wants between 2,267 homes and 1,144 homes constructed depending on how much land the city purchases. The land commissioner wants at least 137 homes and up to 374 homes to be allowed north of Chandler Boulevard, 12 acres be set aside for a school with the possibility of purchasing up to 58 additional acres.

If Phoenix purchases up to 130 acres north of Chandler Boulevard and buys the extra acreage for the larger school site and pays for a 40-acre park and library site, Anable says the land would hold only 1,144 units, less than the city proposes.

"If you cram 1,400 units south of Chandler Boulevard you will diminish the value significantly," said Anable, who insists that his plan takes into account the wishes of the community while maintaining the $60 million to $65 million value that he says the land is worth.

"Higher density may not be bad," counters Laurel Arndt, who lives nearby.

She has a master's degree in urban planning and serves on the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee. It was her subcommittee that came up with the plan that eliminated homes north of Chandler Boulevard.

"Yes we do increase our density, but the benefit to the whole is much greater with more open space and access to South Mountain," she explained.

Higher density reduces urban sprawl and makes delivery of services more efficient, she said.

What is best?

"What is best and what is legally appropriate are two different things," laughed Rob Melnick, director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.

"There can be a wide variety of answers to what's best because it's a value judgment," he said.

Open space, like what the city and the local planning committee propose north of where Chandler Boulevard will go can create "up-value," said Melnick, explaining that open space increases the value of surrounding land.

On the other hand, selling to a developer to build homes generates a large amount of money for the trust which some school districts might argue is best.

But in the case of trust land, what is best is clearly defined in the 1910 Enabling Act, which provided the trust land at statehood. It says, in part, that "No lands shall be sold for less than their appraised value..."

Phoenix, using an appraiser from the land department's approved list of appraisers says the land is worth $50.8 million under the Phoenix plan. Anable says that under his plan the land is worth between $60 million and $65 million.

For Melnick, the issue is bigger than the 620 acres.

To not sell the state land for the maximum amount possible would require some constitutional changes. Last year there were competing propositions that would have made major changes to how Arizona urban areas grew, but both proposals -- Proposition 100 supported by Gov. Jane Hull and Proposition 202 supported by the Sierra Club -- failed at the polls.

According to Melnick the two sides have begun discussions in preparation for next year's election.

In 2000, both sides spent large sums of money promoting their proposition and blasting the opponents' plans.

"They want to avoid a problem like that in the future," said Melnick, explaining that another battle like last year's would be devastating to all sides.

Auction or court

Anable told the city in an April letter to Mayor Skip Rimsza that he will take the city to court to protect the value of the land if efforts to create the 240 acres of open space and 70-acre school site continue.

On May 9, the Phoenix Planning Commission approved the city's plan, despite assistant attorney general Mary Grier reminding the commission that any change would be "contrary to law."

"If we don't reach some kind of accommodation, it will get difficult to sell it," Anable said before the commission's vote.

Doug Murphy can be reached at (480) 496-0665 or by e-mail at dmurphy@aztrib.com.

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