Continental Divide

A development proposed for a north Valley slope has residents accusing the county of "collusion"

Residents fret that if Smith can't show he has adequate water, he'll take advantage of weak county laws by splitting the property into smaller pieces.

One way to get out from under the county's thumb would be splitting the property into five parcels. He then could sell each chunk of land without county interference, because the county doesn't regulate five or fewer lot splits. Whoever buys each parcel would then, in turn, be allowed to break his property into five pieces, sell those off, and continue the process until, conceivably, 76 five-acre lots are sold.

Or he could break the 380 acres into 36-acre parcels and sell those off. Either way, the end result is what's known as a "wildcat development."

The disputed mountain lies in an unincorporated area of Maricopa County.
New Times
The disputed mountain lies in an unincorporated area of Maricopa County.
Janet Mohr is one of many angry residents taking a stand against Gold Mountain Estates.
Paolo Vescia
Janet Mohr is one of many angry residents taking a stand against Gold Mountain Estates.

"We have a lot of concern about [wildcat developments] because they're huge contributors to urban sprawl," says Sandy Bahr, the Sierra Club's conservation outreach coordinator. "It doesn't do any good to better manage growth in the cities and towns if you don't do anything in the unincorporated areas, because all you do is push it out to those areas."

Wildcat developments can create problems for both existing landowners and the ones who purchase the lots. There is no assured water supply. There is no electricity. No sewage system. Dusty, unmanaged roads cause pollution hazards and can be unsafe. Flooding can restrict access. And fire and rescue trucks might be unable to reach emergency situations in time, if at all.

Smith, who insists he's going to put a first-class, state- and county-approved subdivision on Continental Mountain, knows that some of his neighbors would like to strap him to a spiny saguaro. He didn't come to Continental Mountain to win popularity contests.

"I think a lot of people are upset with me because I'm the lightning rod," says Smith. "I'm the personification of what's going on up here. But they're more upset with the county, because they didn't understand what you could do in the county under the existing rules and regulations.

". . . People out here in Carefree and Cave Creek are upset because the rule book doesn't agree with what they think it should say."

Smith says, "I think the county is doing a good job."

Mohr has no doubt Smith is ready to pat the county on the back.

"The county is just bending over backwards to help him," she says. "They're acting very favorably for Wayne Smith. They need to make him comply with all the rules that everyone else has to comply with."

On paper, Gold Mountain Estates is a gated community of 56 upscale homes built on 380 acres of Sonoran Desert. Hillside lots offer impressive views of Carefree, Cave Creek and Scottsdale. A platoon of saguaros stands guard over the property. According to the developer, deer, javelina, mountain lion and even a bear will always have a home there.

But for Smith's utopia to exist on more than a plat map, he'll first have to prove that it can work. He must get his subdivision approved by Maricopa County.

On September 21, Smith met with county planning and zoning officials to discuss Gold Mountain Estates. The county officials expressed concern about a variety of issues, mainly the steepness of the terrain and access for emergency vehicles.

Ron Short, planning director for the Town of Cave Creek, didn't mince words when he spoke at the meeting.

"Both Cave Creek and Carefree are extremely concerned," Short told Smith. "We want you to withdraw your application [for a subdivision]."

Short fired off a magazine of complaints about the proposed subdivision: Smith has only one access to his property, and whether he can legally use the road winding through Mohr's land is still debatable; the increase in traffic will have a direct impact on Cave Creek; the roads are steep and unsafe; there is improper drainage on the mountain; there are unbuildable lots with "massive elevations"; sewage problems on the steep slopes could become a health hazard.

Short raised the guillotine that eventually may behead the subdivision -- water.

"Neither Cave Creek nor Carefree private water companies have a 100-year water supply," said Short. "Both towns are very concerned about the water supply and are commissioning a hydrology study on the aquifer they are using, which goes down every year."

Smith says he plans to drill wells. If the wells fail to have an adequate water supply, he says he may try to sign up with private water companies in the area. Or use Central Arizona Project credits.

But the fact remains -- Smith has yet to prove he has sufficient water to build a subdivision.

Without water, Smith might take the lot-splitting route. He says that because of the choice location, he'd have no trouble selling the parcels of land. But it's an option he doesn't want to pursue.

"I prefer not to do that because at the end of the day, whoever you sell them to is just going to split them," says Smith. "I'd rather take the whole parcel, and plan it, and know what you have, and have some semblance of control over it, rather than just sell it to a bunch of different people and hope they do a good job."

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