By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Each day, a squadron of earthmoving machines tears through rolling Sonoran desert 30 miles north of downtown Phoenix, ripping out native plants, destroying wildlife habitat and preparing open space for development.
The planned residential community dubbed the Villages at Desert Hills is bisected by Interstate 17 and is being reshaped by Del Webb Corporation into freeway exit ramps, golf courses, shopping centers and homes for more than 50,000 people. It's hardly a village. A new city the size of Flagstaff is being carved into unincorporated Maricopa County far from any existing municipal services.
Maricopa County officials have been happy to nurture the project, agreeing to Del Webb's request for increased housing density while downplaying the massive costs to be borne by taxpayers for additional police and fire protection, schools, libraries and the inevitable widening of I-17.
The project is a classic example of urban sprawl at its worst. It has no mass-transit component and no existing commercial center. It destroys virgin desert and encourages further growth away from the urban core. It shifts infrastructure costs to taxpayers while reaping immense profits for private developers.
It's a development that didn't have to happen.
The project's 5,600 acres once belonged to the people of Arizona, but the Arizona Land Department traded it away more than a decade ago in a complicated, messy and financially disastrous exchange.
The property eventually ended up in the hands of Valley National Bank, which in the late 1980s was Arizona's largest financial institution. Under pressure from federal regulators to sell unprofitable assets, Valley sold the land to Phoenix-based Del Webb in 1989 for the fire-sale price of $11 million--$2,037 per acre.
The property remained undeveloped for the next decade because it lacked sufficient water. But that problem, too, was solved, at least for the next 100 years. Water was obtained from the most unlikely of sources--a small Native American tribe more noted for its Harrah's Casino than its water-brokering power.
The Ak-Chin Indian Community south of Phoenix has rights to immense quantities of water that the federal government provides to the tribe to settle aboriginal water-rights claims. Much of the Ak-Chin's water settlement comes from the taxpayer-financed, $5 billion Central Arizona Project canal, which each year diverts more than 1.4 million acre-feet (an acre-foot equals 325,000 gallons) from the Colorado River and pumps it through a 336-mile canal to Arizona cities, farms and industries.
The Ak-Chin had no immediate use for some of its water, so the tribe leased 6,000 to 10,000 acre-feet a year to Del Webb in a deal that will net the tribe more than $100 million over the next century.
The tribe's windfall is a pittance, however, compared to the $2 billion in revenue Del Webb expects to generate over the next 20 years from the Villages at Desert Hills.
This is the fourth far-flung master-planned community that Del Webb has unleashed on the Valley and its taxpayers in the past four decades. The other three--Sun City, Sun City West and the sprawling Foothills project south of South Mountain--have all spurred waves of development on the urban fringes, contributing to traffic jams, spreading pollution and loss of open space.
The Villages at Desert Hills epitomizes the manipulation of government agencies to the benefit of developers. Taxpayer-owned state land is sold for a song, federally subsidized water is imported from a river hundreds of miles away. Cities and counties blithely scrap low-density master plans at developers' behest, and when citizens complain about the destruction of their surroundings, they are ignored.
It's a pattern that has become familiar in Maricopa County over the past two decades. Maricopa County's population has surged by an incredible 574,000 people during the Nineties alone, making Phoenix the 16th-largest metropolitan area in the nation.
The rampant growth has been welcomed by conservative Republicans who have controlled the state legislature and the governorship for most of the past 12 years. Efforts to pass laws that would encourage development near urban centers while making development on the fringes more difficult and expensive were ignored.
Until this year.
In March, a coalition of environmentalists--led by the Sierra Club and Tucson attorney David Baron of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest--launched an initiative drive to place a proposition on the November 3 ballot that would have required a host of strict growth measures. The most significant provision would have required every city and county in the state to create urban-growth boundaries--lines outside of which new development and services would be limited.
Under such a plan, Del Webb's bulldozers wouldn't be allowed to grind up the desert near New River.
The prospect of the Citizen Growth Management Initiative (CGMI), modeled after a 1973 Oregon land-use law, terrified the Arizona development community.
Republican Governor Jane Dee Hull joined the most powerful developers in the state--including Drew Brown of DMB & Associates and Phil Dion, chairman of Del Webb (who also serves as Hull's campaign finance chairman)--to develop a rival plan. They called it "Growing Smarter."
"Growing Smarter" quickly evolved into two elements--legislation and initiative. Last August, Hull signed the Growing Smarter Act, which slightly strengthens land-use-planning requirements for cities and municipalities and created a 15-member commission to study growth and make recommendations.