Art Attack!

To George Zraket, it's an evil zoning plot by old Sscottsdale cronies; to Janie Ellis, it's the only way her timeworn art colony can survive.

Carol Zraket welcomes visitors to her Scottsdale home with a broad smile and the weary words, "He's in the war room." But before she can turn to call him, her husband, George, appears carrying copies of the faxes, memos, letters, lawsuits and petitions that have been his chief arsenal in what has come to be called the zoning battle of Cattle Track.

For nearly 18 months, he has been leading a crusade against efforts by neighbors Janie Ellis and Fred Kueffner to change their zoning from Single Family Residential to Historic Property (HP) and Special Campus-Minor (SC-Minor). Ellis and Kueffner, who have adjoining land across Cattle Track Road from Zraket, say they need the zoning to preserve the rural setting and historic buildings on their properties and expand the small art colony that began there when the renowned painter Philip Curtis, who just turned 90, moved onto the Ellis land in the 1940s.

Zraket opposed Ellis' art-colony plan--called the Canal at Cattle Track--the three times it was reviewed and approved by Scottsdale's planning and zoning commission in 1995 and 1996. And he unsuccessfully fought its approval by the city council last July. His next showdown is May 20, when Scottsdale voters decide Proposition 400, a referendum on last summer's city council action.

As Zraket spins the tale, his view from the bunker emerges. One minute, he's calmly reciting a chronology of the fight. The next, he's agitated, jabbing the air and insisting that his struggle goes beyond the property across the road.

"When we started this opposition a year and a half ago, we were opposing a rezoning case. In 18 months," he says with a hint of a growl, "so many issues have surfaced that the rezoning has almost become secondary. This is a citywide fight now, because if this can happen in our neighborhood, it can happen in every other neighborhood in Scottsdale."

Zraket says most of his neighbors feel the same way. But out of firing range, some confide that they tell him so just to keep him at bay. And talks with many other residents up and down this rural stretch of road just north of downtown Scottsdale reveal that most see Ellis' plan as a reasonable approach to preserve the historic feel of the area and keep the art colony going. Zraket scoffs at the idea.

"I don't doubt there are artists and a bunch of old adobe buildings over there," he says, "but all the talk about historic preservation and expanding the art colony isn't the issue. What it really comes down to is Janie Ellis is ready to cash out her family homestead. And she's ready to do it with a commercial enterprise that'll yield four, five, six or 10 times the value of residential land. The question is whether we're going to let this city rezone residential property for commercial use."

Zraket's political knack for framing the issue in terms that resonate with people concerned about zoning and development has enabled him to move his fight and his name outside the neighborhood. Friends as far away as Pinnacle Peak have embraced Zraket's domino theory with a NIMBY (not in my backyard) zeal that seems out of scale for the 12 little acres involved in this case. The proof is that he and petitioners he hired managed to collect enough signatures last year to force the city council's decision to a referendum on the May 20 ballot. In recent months, he has maneuvered smartly to ensure that voters who don't know anything about Cattle Track will see Proposition 400 precisely his way. When the city proposed ballot language saying that a "yes" vote would uphold the city council's decision "to allow an existing arts campus to expand its current operations . . . ," he sued and had the language stricken for giving voters more than the essential legal description of the measure required by law.

"It's pretty easy to predict," he says, "that if voters unfamiliar with the issue read that it would allow an existing art colony to expand its current operations, they'd probably say, 'Well, they've already got it, and they want to expand it, so why not let them?' But if they read only that residential property is being changed to Special Campus-Minor, even though they don't know what the hell that is, they'd probably vote no."

The final ballot language will tell voters only that a "yes" vote would uphold the city council's decision to rezone the land.

Yet many referendum supporters and opponents agree that a campaign of "It's the rezoning, stupid" belies the true complexity of this case. At issue is not just Ellis' proposal, the fate of her small art colony, and the implications of the city's new SC zoning category, but the difficult choices communities face when old property and zoning are pressured to catch up with the times.

Janie Ellis and Fred Kueffner say Ellis' plan to spruce up the art colony is modest; that it wouldn't affect Kueffner's two acres, or an adjacent two acres owned by the Paradise Valley Water Company included as part of the rezoning. Ellis says the changes planned for her 8.5 acres would do nothing more than continue her mother and father's "tradition of nurturing and providing studio space to artists."

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