Growing Smarmier

It's not David vs. Goliath; it's Cindy vs. Del Webb

The street sign on the corner where Cindy Foster lives is handcrafted. It's not crude, but it's definitely not government-issue.

To get to her place, turn north off Lone Mountain Road onto 66th Street, which in this area northeast of Phoenix is an undulating gravel lane that winds through desert and broadly scattered homes.

Foster is a financial and tax planner. Her husband, Steve, is a master farrier; he shoes horses. They keep steeds themselves, and in the eight years they've lived in their Sonoran Shangri-la, they've joined neighbors in hiking and riding horses and bicycles on a State Trust Land parcel that lies a few hundred yards to the west.

Cindy and Steve Foster on Section 16.
Annette Callahan
Cindy and Steve Foster on Section 16.

The state land is called Section 16, and if the Arizona State Land Department has its way, the 608 acres will be the site of 794 new homes. US Homes was the high bidder at an auction last July, and plans to develop the property in conjunction with Del Webb Corporation.

If Foster and her neighbors have their way, the lush desert parcel will remain as it is -- raw land, an undeveloped park studded with saguaros and cholla and ocotillo.

Of course, they won't have their way.

The new homemade sign should read: Tract homes on steroids ahead.

Ever since the Sierra Club began circulating petitions to put a growth-control measure on the state ballot -- an effort that was undone by the toothless Growing Smarter restraints crafted by our developer-friendly governor and Legislature -- the state has been unloading Trust Land as though it were radioactive waste. Much of the state-sanctioned land rush has occurred right here in the Valley, where explosive growth and escalating land prices have homebuilders in a frenzy.

But that isn't stopping Foster from asking the state Supreme Court to halt the sale and blading of her beloved equestrian playground.

She and her neighbors believe the Land Department is illegally abetting leapfrog development and, by auctioning off ever-larger blocks of Trust Land, shortchanging Arizona schoolkids.

"They end up selling these huge parcels to the only people who can buy them, and that's these huge national homebuilders," Foster says. "They put in these instant cities, and then they leave. It's ruining the rural characteristics of this area, which is why we moved out here in the first place."

Land Department spokesman Nick Simonetta points out that the Court of Appeals found that the state had done nothing wrong. He notes that the Land Department is working hard to get more state land set aside in preserves, but that the "personal agendas" of protestors like Foster cannot alter the Land Department's mission.

It matters little that Foster's petition to the court has some merit, that it raises legitimate concerns shared by millions of Arizonans. The state Court of Appeals has already rejected her special action, and our conservative Supreme Court jurists would beat their golf clubs into ploughshares before they'd meddle in the affairs of master planners.

Furthermore, Governor Jane Dee Hull would pass a stone. When she isn't presiding over nine-digit tax giveaways for alternative-fuel vehicles, Hull is scratching backs within the development community.

Former Del Webb chieftain Phil Dion chaired her gubernatorial campaign committee. The homebuilder contributed copiously to her war chest. The governor showed her appreciation by sacking Land Commissioner Dennis Wells and replacing him with Mike Anable, who does little to discourage his reputation as a step-'n'-fetch for development moguls like Dion.

So far this fiscal year, the Land Department has completed 15 outright land sales comprising 2,469 acres. Thirteen of those auctions involved a single bidder.

The Land Department was positively manic last fiscal year, when competing growth-control campaigns were being waged. It shed 4,662 acres last year, at an average price of $11,786 an acre. Of the 34 sales transactions last year, only eight aroused the interest of more than a single bidder.

Massive Trust Land auctions like the 608 acres in Section 16 used to be unheard of. Under Anable the Cannibal, they are becoming routine. The Land Department is now a veritable Price Club where builders buy in bulk.

The plan to spin off 15,000 acres near the White Tank Mountains -- before individual communities can coherently craft growth plans required under Growing Smarter -- is the most ambitious on the table. Del Webb, which got into the construction business by erecting internment camps during World War II, has the state contract to plan that future gulag.

The fate of Section 16 -- which lies inside the City of Phoenix -- transcends horseplay and bucolic NIMBYism.

The main campus of the Cave Creek Unified School District abuts Section 16. In 1991, the district had an enrollment of 1,526. Today, it has 4,244 students -- thanks in large part to such subdivisions as Del Webb's Terravita.

Cave Creek district officials tried to get the Land Department to sell them part of Section 16 for a new school site. The state told them to take a hike -- but not on state land.

The district looked for property on the open market and found its best prospect at $120,000 an acre -- a price at which the school board understandably balked.

Meanwhile, the Land Department handed Section 16 to US Homes and Del Webb for $63,000 an acre.

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