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.

At the hearing, Sasser's zoning attorney, Mike Curley, asked the board to overturn planners' denial of Sasser's request for variances to reduce the amount of open space on the site from 35 percent to 9.5 percent, and to build two-story homes that would reach heights of almost 40 feet above the base of the hill.

According to hearing minutes, city planner Carol Johnson (no relation to Lynn Johnson) told the board that Sasser was trying to impose "flat-land development conditions" on a hillside parcel. She also expressed concerns that the two-story homes would create a "Chinese wall" of development overlooking the mobile-home park.

Carol Johnson's statements echoed those of planner Ted Brookhart, the hearing officer who originally had rejected Sasser's request for the variances.

Brookhart went so far as to recommend that Sasser seek to have the property rezoned to allow single-family homes on large lots. Carol Johnson suggested that Sasser consider giving up several units to create more open space on the site.

But Curley argued that the staff's recommendations were moot because the site had long been zoned for 62 units, and because the council had already approved his client's plans to build single-family homes, which would necessarily take up more space than townhomes.

Curley further argued that it was ridiculous to expect Sasser to build $200,000 homes on a site hemmed in by "substandard" developments, like mobile-home parks.

While she considers it "unusual" for the board to vote against both staff and neighbors, Carol Johnson says, she sees nothing sinister in the board's decision.

"Sometimes they vote with us, sometimes not," she says.
Sasser points out that most of those who opposed his plans were renters whose opinions don't carry as much weight as property owners'. He adds that the partners who own the mobile-home park have never contested his plans.

"That's because they understand that this is really something special, and it's going to bring value to the area," he says.

Marge Leonard, a Paradise Views resident who will live directly below the new development, says she dreads to think of the new homes.

"I'll have no privacy because the people living in those houses are gonna have a view right down into my backyard," Leonard says.

Sasser says he intends to create a landscaped buffer zone to minimize his development's impact. He adds that his profit margin is too slim to pull even one home from the plan.

That statement draws a laugh from Lynn Johnson.
"The city said he could build up to 62 units," Johnson says. "They didn't say he had to build all 62."

For his part, Sasser says, he is mystified by Johnson's spirited resistance, given the fact that Johnson's home sits one street away from his development and would face minimal--if any--impact from it.

"It's almost like he just wants to leave any mark he can on this project," Sasser says. "He wants his pound of flesh. Well, I'm not going to give it to him."

Johnson says he's just a concerned neighbor who has the best interests of the neighborhood at heart.

Johnson played what may prove to be his last card at a May 1 Board of Adjustment hearing when he requested a continuance to send the issue back to the City Council for reconsideration.

"I truly believe that they [the council] never had any idea when they voted . . . that they were going to get this kind of a development," Johnson told the board.

The board unanimously rejected Johnson's proposal.

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