Crowded Houses

City overrules planning staff, neighbors in approving a zoning commissioner's dense residential project

Developer wants to build some homes.
Neighbors want a say in how development will look.
So do city planners, who say developer is asking for too much.

Developer winds up getting everything he asks for. Allegations of cronyism ensue.

The tiff is typical of the give-and-take that goes on each week at city zoning hearings, with one notable exception:

The developer who wants to build 62 homes near 19th Street and Thunderbird Road is Jim Sasser, who sits on Phoenix's Planning and Zoning Commission.

Sasser, who was appointed to the commission in 1993 by then-councilman Skip Rimsza, denies receiving any favors.

If anything, he says, he has been held to a higher standard than most developers.

"It's almost not worth the hassle," says Sasser, who estimates the homes will sell for around $100,000 each. He says the profit, which he will split with his partner, will amount to roughly $10,000 per home.

Sasser's most outspoken critic has been neighborhood activist Lynn Johnson, a soon-to-be-retired insurance salesman who says he and other neighbors were kept in the dark about Sasser's plans until too late.

Johnson's activism dates from the '80s, when a developer unveiled plans to build an apartment complex across the street from his home, which lies to the south of Sasser's site.

Johnson successfully battled to impose height restrictions on some of the apartments. In 1987, when another developer sought to build 62 townhomes on a narrow strip of hillside, Johnson mobilized neighbors to demand the city restrict densities and require setbacks.

Those townhomes never were built, casualties of the moribund real-estate market of the late '80s.

Today, with the market again strong, Sasser has stepped in to develop the 9.5-acre strip, which lies near 19th Street between Sweetwater and Larkspur. Sasser's partner in the development deal is the property's owner Tom Silva, the owner of a local fast-food chicken franchise.

Instead of townhomes, though, Sasser wants to build 62 single-family detached residences, an average of 6.5 homes per acre.

Because of the hillside location, the development is supposed to be governed by the city's Hillside Ordinance, which spells out lower housing densities and guidelines for preserving undisturbed patches of desert. The ordinance was enacted in the early '80s with an eye toward preserving scenic views.

Thanks to the Phoenix City Council's decision in 1987 to waive the ordinance's requirements for lower housing densities, and thanks to the blessing of the current council to increase those densities even further, Sasser is free to cover most of his site beneath a sea of stucco and tiled roofs.

In the hope of altering the development, Johnson has once again mobilized his forces. He has labeled the development a boondoggle, drawn neighbors into the fray and accused Sasser of abusing the planning process.

And Johnson has allies on the city's planning staff who agree that the proposed development brings too much housing to too small a site.

Johnson says Sasser has set a bad example for other developers by lobbying for a project that "pushes the envelope."

Despite neighborhood and city staff opposition, all of Sasser's requests have been approved unanimously by either the Phoenix City Council or the Board of Adjustment, the panel to which developers can appeal decisions made by city planners.

And, Sasser points out, neither Johnson nor any of his neighborhood allies showed up at the one hearing at which they would have had the best chance to contest Sasser's plans.

At that June 5, 1996, City Council meeting, Sasser asked for permission to grade almost 20 percent more of the site than was agreed to in 1987. He also requested that he be allowed to increase the housing density to build single-family homes instead of townhomes, which he says are no longer in demand.

City planners recommended the council deny both of Sasser's requests, but the council granted Sasser's wishes.

After the council sided with Sasser, Johnson says, he wrote a letter to City Councilwoman Peggy Bilsten, who represents his north Phoenix district, to express his displeasure. Bilsten wrote back that she voted to approve the development because no one had shown up to oppose it.

Johnson says he definitely would have attended the meeting had he known about it. He maintains that "something happened" to the signs the city was required to post to notify neighbors of the hearing on Sasser's request.

"Every hearing in the past ever held on that parcel has been attended by at least somebody [from the opposition]," Johnson says. "Why would we have not bothered to show up for this one?"

Sasser says the hearing was posted and also advertised in the paper, as required by law. He adds that before the hearing, he sought input from neighbors who had opposed the project back in 1987.

Then, as now, much of the opposition came from residents of Paradise Views, a mobile-home park sited east of the undeveloped parcel. Sasser says many of those renters have left the park since 1987.

Johnson acknowledges meeting with Sasser in the summer of 1995, but adds that Sasser's plans were vague at that time.

After learning that the council had given Sasser the go-ahead, 16 of the park's current residents, along with Johnson, chartered a bus to attend an October 3, 1996, Board of Adjustment hearing.

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