Growing Complicated

Already, the state's grand plan for halting urban sprawl appears doomed

The governor's Growing Smarter Commission is visiting a dozen cities in Arizona this summer, offering free cookies and drinks and a 13-page draft report that could shape the future of the state.

By the time the road show ends next week, more than 1,000 people will have attended at least 15 open houses. They will have pressed on their paper name tags, milled around tables topped with stacks of documents, chatted with bureaucrats and political types and stuck red and green dots on a chart to vote for the issues they most care about.

They will have returned thousands of pages of questionnaires and scrawled their ideas on page after page of white flip charts. Those who wanted to make a more formal statement will have spouted off into a tape recorder available for just that purpose. Others will have mailed in letters or e-mailed their thoughts about growth management.

Attorney Steve Betts makes a point during an open house.
Attorney Steve Betts makes a point during an open house.
Attorney Steve Betts makes a point during an open house.
Paolo Vescia
Attorney Steve Betts makes a point during an open house.

Then, the commission and Legislature will adopt a wise plan for Arizona, drawing a balanced blueprint for the future that will reflect everyone's opinions and make everyone happy.

That will occur right after hell freezes over.

Even those with high hopes for the panel and its mission admit the whole debate is growing complicated. There is little agreement about proposals in the plan and a slim chance that whatever the commission recommends by its September 1 deadline will get past the Legislature.

And there are competing forces at work, marching an alternate set of proposals toward the November 2000 ballot.

Jack Pfister, the former general manager of Salt River Project who is heading up the 15-member commission, says the open houses are serving their purpose: airing ideas while taking the pulse of Arizonans on growth management issues.

"When we get through with the process, I'm confident that we'll have a pretty good sense about how the public feels," he says. "Obviously, there will be conflicting views."

Pfister says as far as he can tell, there is general agreement on only one point.

"Everyone says they don't want the status quo, they want some changes," he says.

Maria Baier, Governor Jane Hull's natural resources policy adviser and representative to the Growing Smarter project, says she believes the draft report is tougher than some had anticipated.

"In some quarters, I think the concern that was initially expressed by the environmentalists may have diminished considerably," she says. "I think that maybe people in other quarters are making accusations . . . that their ideas aren't as well represented as they ought to be."

Translation: Those who feared the commission would be weighted in favor of developers and home builders may be pleasantly surprised by some of the recommendations, while those who had banked on the governor's group being weighted in their favor may be disappointed.

Representative Jake Flake, a Republican member of the commission from Snowflake, says people he's talked with are worried about what the panel will recommend.

"I think everybody is a little concerned about how it will end up," he says. "The municipalities are a little concerned about what's going to be demanded of them. They're totally against mandates and money that will be withheld if they don't comply. The county people are also concerned. Most of the ranching people are worried about private property rights. And how the stewardship trust [a proposal to set aside state trust land for conservation] will end up, I'm very concerned about that."

Flake says he sees a huge split in urban versus rural interests.

"We need to slow down, somewhat, growth in urban areas, at least contain it. But yet our rural concerns are just exactly the opposite. Almost all of us want growth and economic development," he says. "This is what I just keep harping on, but I don't think we've adequately addressed it yet."

Steve Betts, a land-use attorney appointed by the governor to the commission, says the panel must know whatever it recommends will not please everyone: "We can't be all things to all people."

Whatever the commission does propose may go nowhere in the Legislature. Some Growing Smarter backers have vowed to take their ideas directly to the voters in initiative form if meaningful legislation is not passed next session. Betts says if the panel fails to get its ideas enacted through legislation or on the ballot by other means, the environmentalist-backed Citizens Growth Management Initiative, called draconian by critics, will be a shoo-in.

"People are going to say, what the hell, let's vote for the Sierra Club initiative. . . . People want something," he says.

Sandra Luna was one of the rare regular citizens to show up at the Phoenix area open houses. An Avondale resident, she was urged to attend by a city council member. In her hometown, she says, she is witnessing rapid growth alter not only the landscape, but the lifestyle of its residents. Some people in her community are not used to big cities, crowded streets. And yet they feel almost invisible to developers.

"Developers are happy with no citizen input," she says. "We have to force developers to hear from us."

She called the open house a bit intimidating, but she wishes more people had attended.

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