By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
The normally sleepy Deer Valley Village Planning Committee has become a whirlwind of political intrigue that pits current and former members of the advisory panel against Phoenix City Councilmember Thelda Williams.
The antagonism centers on the land-use plan for 87 acres west of Deer Valley Airport. The village committee wants the land designated industrial while Williams is pushing for residential development.
Typically, such debates drone on in front of zoning attorneys in near-empty hearing rooms. But this issue has dragged on for more than two years, and has escalated to the point where Phoenix police are investigating a conflict-of-interest complaint against a member of the village committee.
The police investigation centers on Gary White, a Deer Valley realtor who declines to comment other than to say he's "an easy target."
Observers say they believe there's a link between the investigation into White and White's opposition to Williams' pet housing project.
"I'm concerned this may be a witch hunt," says David Conrad, a former member of the Deer Valley planning committee, who lost a bid for the city council last fall.
Williams, who is mounting a campaign for mayor, first mentioned possible impropriety by the Deer Valley Village Planning Committee February 23 during a community forum, saying there was "some litigation pending" regarding the 87 acres.
Williams, whose husband is a police officer, says she was not aware there was a police investigation into the matter until New Times told her on Monday.
"All I know is the [property] owners were making accusations of some kind of conflict of interest of a member of the committee," Williams says.
Conrad wants the police probe widened to include Williams' relationship with Michael Longstreth, a Phoenix real estate broker and former chairman of the city's Aviation Advisory Board. Williams appointed Longstreth to the board, which monitors operations at the city's airports.
Longstreth, a longtime friend and political adviser to Williams, was the primary force pushing a Continental Homes plan to build a subdivision on the 87 acres, located on the northwest corner of 19th Avenue and Pinnacle Peak Road, about a half-mile from Deer Valley Airport. Longstreth stood to earn a six-figure commission if the deal went through.
City records show Longstreth lobbied the city Planning and Zoning Commission and city council to support the housing development even though Aviation Department officials weighed in against the Continental housing development. The Aviation Advisory Board did not take a position.
Aviation staffers weren't the only ones against the project. The Deer Valley Village Planning Committee repeatedly voted to send nonbinding recommendations to the city Planning and Zoning Department opposing the subdivision. Based on the Planning Department's opposition, the city's five-member Planning Commission also rejected Longstreth's proposal. But Williams kept the issue alive before the city council while serving as acting mayor last year ("A Lame Duck in Hot Water," August 11, 1994).
Longstreth needed to clear two bureaucratic hurdles to get the subdivision rolling. First, the city had to change the general plan designation for the land from industrial to residential. Then he needed to win site-specific zoning approval.
With Williams' strong support, Longstreth almost pulled off a real estate coup. Williams convinced the city council to reject the recommendations of the Planning Commission and approve the general plan change to residential. But Longstreth fell short of winning zoning approval for the development.
The city council attached several caveats to the zoning plan that were unacceptable to Continental Homes, which withdrew its request last August.
At the September 15 Deer Valley Village Planning Committee meeting, White made a motion to change the parcel's designation in the general plan back to industrial.
Conrad seconded the motion, and the nonbinding recommendation was forwarded to the city's planning staff, which quickly concurred with the committee's recommendation.
"Approval of this General Plan amendment will eliminate the potential for the development of an isolated residential neighborhood surrounded by industrial land uses," the planning staff concluded in an October 24 report.
The proposed amendment was to go before the Planning and Zoning Commission at its December 8 meeting. But the amendment never saw the light of day.
Williams fired off a rambling letter to the Deer Valley Village Planning Committee on October 26, urging it to "re-evaluate the timeliness" of changing the land-use designation.
The Deer Valley committee agreed with Williams' request, placing the item back on its November 17 agenda. This time, the motion to approve the amendment was made by Tim Norton--rather than White--and once again, it was passed unanimously.
"The committee has always felt that residential was not in concert with the planning in the area based on the airport and industrial uses that have already appeared out there," says Mary Hudak, whose term as Deer Valley planning committee chairwoman expired at the end of 1994.
The committee's wishes, however, were thwarted again.
Six days before the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, an attorney representing Chicago Title Insurance Company--which holds the 87 acres in trust for a group of more than 20 individuals--filed a complaint with the Phoenix Planning Department, alleging that White had a conflict of interest.
Lawyer Jeanne Y. Chanen alleged that White offered his real estate brokerage services to the landowners after the Deer Valley committee first voted to recommend changing the general plan in September.