Webb Design

The good, the bad and the boring of Del Webb's New River development

Though Webb is optimistic about its ability to minimize traffic moving in and out of the Villages, the hard lesson of Valley development has been that the self-sufficiency and sustainability of planned communities usually end where the roads and concerns about air quality begin.

There's no mystery to this. The Valley has simply lacked the vision and the will to forge an unbreakable link between transportation and land planning, and land planning and air quality.

As a result, the growth game is a perpetual round of building and reacting.
The Villages project tells the story in a nutshell.
"Suppose you do a master plan for Maricopa County," says Terry Borland, the Arizona Department of Transportation project manager for the section of I17 that will serve the Villages. "That master plan calls for a particular kind of land use, so we base our facilities on that established land use. When a developer comes in and changes the zoning, that usually affects the ability of our roads to handle the projected traffic."

Borland says his department believes traffic from the Villages will require that a third lane be added to I17, beginning around Beardsley Road and extending north beyond the Desert Hills interchange.

Webb's own traffic study, which depicts I17 as three lanes in each direction where there are now only two, generally supports that assessment. But the financing for these improvements is an entirely unsettled matter.

Because the transportation department has no authority to tell developers to pay for improvements to state roads, it looks to the county and cities for help.

In this case, says Tom Buick, head of the Maricopa County transportation department, "help takes the form of the county's zoning authority to require what you might term 'off-site' improvements to I17."

The county stipulated that Webb must contribute to improving interchanges for the interstate, but left open the matter of paying for the additional lanes depicted in Webb's traffic study.

Borland says the state expects Webb to chip in for the lanes. Webb's spokesman, Ken Plonski, says there have been no discussions about that.

"We will contribute our fair share to the three interchange constructions," he says, "but our position is that the lanes are a responsibility that ADOT has traditionally performed."

Regardless of who foots the bill, no roads or road improvements associated with the Villages can be built without an air-quality conformity analysis mandated by the federal Clean Air Act.

According to county planners and air-quality officials, this analysis is a simple idea whose process is complicated, technical and difficult to explain. The short of it is that the feds require polluted areas, such as Phoenix, to prepare a plan to clean the air.

Since Phoenix's primary pollution source is the automobile, the Maricopa Association of Governments generates the air analysis as part of its annual Transportation Improvement Plan, which it submits to the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Doug Eberhart, manager of air-quality planning for MAG, says the plan is based on assumptions about the region's existing and future roads, traffic, employment and population patterns, along with meteorological data.

At the moment, one thing is clear: The air-quality impact of the traffic associated with Webb's Villages has not yet been determined. Nor has the county formally decided whether the roads Webb proposes to add or change will be the "regionally significant" kind that the EPA requires to be included in MAG's assessment on air quality.

These matters won't be determined until long after the county supervisors have acted on Webb's rezoning application.

While it's tempting to see the devil in this lack of detail, Buick points out that Webb's plans are still far too general for the county to make accurate calls about the project's roads.

Still unresolved are what, if any, portion of the Villages will be a retirement community; whether sections of it will be gated; to what extent its streets will connect to roads outside the community; and when, exactly, Webb's project will require the road improvements to be made.

Buick says he expects all this information to be provided when Webb submits its actual development plats for the project--by which time the county should have completed its traffic study for the area. Though no date for plat submittal has been set, Webb's Plonski guesses it will probably occur sometime early next year.

That leaves plenty of time for surprises on the traffic and air-quality fronts.

But the now-quiet opponents of Webb's Villages at Desert Hills shouldn't get their hopes up. Eberhart can't think of any instance when Valley development plans have been scuttled by concerns about air quality.

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