Art Attack!

Carol Zraket welcomes visitors to her Scottsdale home with a broad smile and the weary words, "He's in the war room." But before she can turn to call him, her husband, George, appears carrying copies of the faxes, memos, letters, lawsuits and petitions that have been his chief arsenal in what has come to be called the zoning battle of Cattle Track.

For nearly 18 months, he has been leading a crusade against efforts by neighbors Janie Ellis and Fred Kueffner to change their zoning from Single Family Residential to Historic Property (HP) and Special Campus-Minor (SC-Minor). Ellis and Kueffner, who have adjoining land across Cattle Track Road from Zraket, say they need the zoning to preserve the rural setting and historic buildings on their properties and expand the small art colony that began there when the renowned painter Philip Curtis, who just turned 90, moved onto the Ellis land in the 1940s.

Zraket opposed Ellis' art-colony plan--called the Canal at Cattle Track--the three times it was reviewed and approved by Scottsdale's planning and zoning commission in 1995 and 1996. And he unsuccessfully fought its approval by the city council last July. His next showdown is May 20, when Scottsdale voters decide Proposition 400, a referendum on last summer's city council action.

As Zraket spins the tale, his view from the bunker emerges. One minute, he's calmly reciting a chronology of the fight. The next, he's agitated, jabbing the air and insisting that his struggle goes beyond the property across the road.

"When we started this opposition a year and a half ago, we were opposing a rezoning case. In 18 months," he says with a hint of a growl, "so many issues have surfaced that the rezoning has almost become secondary. This is a citywide fight now, because if this can happen in our neighborhood, it can happen in every other neighborhood in Scottsdale."

Zraket says most of his neighbors feel the same way. But out of firing range, some confide that they tell him so just to keep him at bay. And talks with many other residents up and down this rural stretch of road just north of downtown Scottsdale reveal that most see Ellis' plan as a reasonable approach to preserve the historic feel of the area and keep the art colony going. Zraket scoffs at the idea.

"I don't doubt there are artists and a bunch of old adobe buildings over there," he says, "but all the talk about historic preservation and expanding the art colony isn't the issue. What it really comes down to is Janie Ellis is ready to cash out her family homestead. And she's ready to do it with a commercial enterprise that'll yield four, five, six or 10 times the value of residential land. The question is whether we're going to let this city rezone residential property for commercial use."

Zraket's political knack for framing the issue in terms that resonate with people concerned about zoning and development has enabled him to move his fight and his name outside the neighborhood. Friends as far away as Pinnacle Peak have embraced Zraket's domino theory with a NIMBY (not in my backyard) zeal that seems out of scale for the 12 little acres involved in this case. The proof is that he and petitioners he hired managed to collect enough signatures last year to force the city council's decision to a referendum on the May 20 ballot. In recent months, he has maneuvered smartly to ensure that voters who don't know anything about Cattle Track will see Proposition 400 precisely his way. When the city proposed ballot language saying that a "yes" vote would uphold the city council's decision "to allow an existing arts campus to expand its current operations . . . ," he sued and had the language stricken for giving voters more than the essential legal description of the measure required by law.

"It's pretty easy to predict," he says, "that if voters unfamiliar with the issue read that it would allow an existing art colony to expand its current operations, they'd probably say, 'Well, they've already got it, and they want to expand it, so why not let them?' But if they read only that residential property is being changed to Special Campus-Minor, even though they don't know what the hell that is, they'd probably vote no."

The final ballot language will tell voters only that a "yes" vote would uphold the city council's decision to rezone the land.

Yet many referendum supporters and opponents agree that a campaign of "It's the rezoning, stupid" belies the true complexity of this case. At issue is not just Ellis' proposal, the fate of her small art colony, and the implications of the city's new SC zoning category, but the difficult choices communities face when old property and zoning are pressured to catch up with the times.

Janie Ellis and Fred Kueffner say Ellis' plan to spruce up the art colony is modest; that it wouldn't affect Kueffner's two acres, or an adjacent two acres owned by the Paradise Valley Water Company included as part of the rezoning. Ellis says the changes planned for her 8.5 acres would do nothing more than continue her mother and father's "tradition of nurturing and providing studio space to artists."

The rezoning application shows two phases of improvements on Ellis' property. The first would add 4,000 additional square feet of space to an existing carport and enclose it for year-round studio use by artists. The second would add up to six houses/studios, totaling about 12,000 square feet, to the back part of Ellis' property, along the Arizona Canal.

Toward the front, on a patch of ground where visitors now park, Ellis plans to put 46 parking spaces in phase one. She wants to surface the lot with stabilized decomposed granite, rather than asphalt, to preserve the rural appearance of the area.

Stipulations also allow Ellis to leave the rural character of Cattle Track itself intact. The only additions will be more trees and a walking path along Ellis' side of the road, to connect with a milelong loop that circles east on Lincoln Drive and back around along the canal bank. Building any new residential housing within 50 feet of the road is barred. No offices or studios can be closer than 75 feet to it. In addition, buildings within 150 feet of the road can be no higher than 18 feet. Twenty-four feet is the limit through the middle part of the property. And buildings adjacent to the canal can't exceed 30 feet--lower than the average two-story house.

Because Ellis' property drops gradually downhill from the road toward the canal, the taller buildings would occupy the lower parts of the property. "Essentially, this kind of setback, combined with the added trees out front, would make her new additions virtually invisible from the road," says architect Vernon Swaback, who supports the plan and has worked on projects as varied as botanical gardens, state parks, private residences and large master-planned communities.

But George Zraket is unfazed. He says this tranquil compound of shady homes and studios is just the early stages of what will eventually become a new Borgata--the nearly 90,000-square-foot fake-Italian complex of shops, offices and restaurants with parking for 530 cars just up Scottsdale Road.

His doomsday scenario begins with a diesel-blackened stream of beer, liquor and laundry trucks. "Then come the Roadway Express, Federal Express and UPS trucks. There'll be truck traffic delivering things five to six days a week. We're going to have customers coming in seven days a week. And during the Christmas season, they'll probably be open nights."

Gathering steam, he darkly lays out the rest of the nightmare: "Then when Phil Curtis dies and goes to the artist heaven, we'll get the Phil Curtis Museum and Home. Wouldn't it be nice to get married in there? That's right, go and get married in the Philip Curtis Home? Then on to the 120-seat live-performance theater. Nice dance floor. Nice garden environment outside. And you have an outdoor reception party where there's catered food and liquor."

Zraket isn't sure how many groups he's given this talk to lately, but his savvy blend of grievances and Toastmasters practically puts scales on the commercial monster of every homeowner's bad dream. Like other early-round losers of zoning battles, he paints himself the victim of a city willing to change its zoning code to suit one project.

To get his message out, he mixes facts with innuendoes, guilt by association and blurred distinctions--the proven tools of propaganda. For example, he claims a secret investor is standing behind Janie Ellis, calling the shots; that powerful people have smoothed her way; and that the city is rife with cronyism and back-room dealing. He has no proof, just suspicions.

"When we started looking into it," he says, "we started to find where all the pieces fit."

Prime suspect number one is Wilson Jones, Ellis' former husband, who, says Zraket, "drew up the basic site plan for her rezoning application, and was the architect behind the Borgata."

Number two is architect Vernon Swaback, who "broke the residential zoning in our area 12 years ago by putting his architectural office on the lot right next to my house" and is an Ellis friend and adviser. "How well does Vernon fit?" asks Zraket. "He's the architect and land planner for the 8,000-home DC Ranch development in north Scottsdale. He's the land planner for AmberJack, another major 3,000- to 4,000-home project in north Scottsdale. He was also the city's paid consultant 10 years ago to head up the city's visioning process that led to this new Special Campus zoning."

And just a phone call away, says Zraket, are all of Ellis' former and current city hall accomplices, including Mayor Sam Campana, former mayors Herb Drinkwater and William Jenkins, former city councilwoman Diane Cusack and a host of others.

"What's so sad about this case," says Ed Lewis, a neighbor and a developer who initially opposed the rezoning until stipulations were put in place to limit the size of any future development on Ellis' property, "is that while I understand some of George's concerns--in fact, early on I provided him with a lot of the information that got him going--I think some of his tactics have gotten way out of whack.

"When he goes around to community associations painting this as a case of commercial intrusion into a residential neighborhood, I'm not sure he's fairly representing what Janie wants or is proposing to do. And the way he attacks her credibility, saying she's a profit monger, is just not right or accurate. And it's certainly not fair."

He adds, "If Janie were the kind of economic animal he says she is, she'd be proposing a very different kind of plan, or she would have tried to maximize the value of the land, by applying more beneficial lower density uses to it, a long time ago."

Sitting at a table in the kitchen of the house her mother and father, Rachel and George, began building in the 1930s, Janie Ellis is clearly disgusted with the way things have turned out. "Look," she says, "my mom and I could sell this place tomorrow and walk away from all this nonsense--and that's a nice word for what it is. But the fact is all I want to do is try to keep the thing my mom and dad started going.

"I want to expand an old carport into studios and build some studio/residences down near the canal. And I thought it'd be a nice idea to have a little sandwich shop and a cafe, so people who happen to be working here and in the offices across Cattle Track can get something to eat. Hell, George can even come get a sandwich if he wants."

She shakes her head, looks away, draws a breath and, with a year's worth of resentment in her voice, continues: "All these people are imagining things that we just aren't interested in doing. And most of them just don't realize or care what has gone on here in the past 60 years. My God, if my mom and dad had tried as hard as George and others are trying to predict the future of this land, they wouldn't have had any time to build this into the kind of place it is. There was nothing, absolutely nothing here when they started out."

Photographs that Janie Ellis' folks took of their property in the 1930s show that, beyond the creosote bushes in the foreground, the views stretched unimpeded to the McDowell Mountains. No homes, no roads, no schools, or malls, or people. Just the banks of the Arizona Canal along the eastern boundary of the prospect. And to the north, beyond the reach of canal water, grew barely enough trees to shade a dog.

Zraket, who has lived in the neighborhood for about 15 years, and whose house sits where the Ellises once scratched a baseball diamond and a runway for model airplanes out of the desert, accuses the Ellises of wearing their heritage on their sleeves.

However, ex-mayors Herb Drinkwater and William Jenkins and others who have known the property since the 1950s say one can just as easily see their heritage on the land--in the blue paloverde, eucalyptus and olive trees planted by the Ellises that now cloister the property behind veils of desert green and shade. And in the dozen or so houses, workshops and studios that George Ellis, who assisted Frank Lloyd Wright in building Taliesin West and the Pauson House, designed and built between the 1930s and 1965, the year Scottsdale annexed the property from the county.

"Let's call them what they really are," says Zraket. "These are just old buildings. They're made of adobe brick, and that's okay, we've got a valley full of them. What bothers me is this innuendo that Cochise slept there, that something of significance happened in these buildings that is such an historic event that we absolutely must preserve them for posterity."

Zraket claims that none of the buildings has "ever received any awards or recognition from any historical society or national register of historic places."

However, Bob Frankeberger, a preservation architect with the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office, says Zraket's comments have no merit. "Naming the Ellis properties as historic buildings is more a matter of when, not if," he says. He considers them eligible because of their association with Scottsdale's early development as a cultural center. "They were the gathering spot for Depression-era artists, such as Curtis, who came here under the WPA," he says. And George Ellis' distinction as an architect and a builder also makes the property eligible. The process of designating them historic properties is already under way.

The history that immediately concerns Janie Ellis is that of the property's use. She and many others familiar with the land say that the varied activities occurring there now evolved in the years before the city arrived.

"In the late 1940s," says Janie's brother Michael, co-owner of the property and an economics professor at New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, "my dad rebuilt a barn into the house where Phil Curtis, the painter, now lives and works. And when we got old enough, my brother David and I turned the chicken coop into a hot-rod shop and then converted the milk barn into a boat business, where we built and repaired all manner of fiber-glass things." Ellis' father also kept woodworking and metalworking shops going for his contracting business.

The other side of the Ellis coin has been the arts. Janie Ellis and others recite a long list of artists--in addition to Phil Curtis--and craftspeople whose work and presence there long ago gave today's art colony its start. "There's no doubt that their whole family and background has been centered around the arts," admits George Zraket. "Janie has a hard-floor dance theater over there, where she used to give recitals. Her mother has been making costumes for theatrical productions around the United States. And there's a man doing foundry work."

The list of tenants in Ellis' seven or eight studios goes on from there to include about a dozen assorted artists and craftspeople, ranging from sculptors and painters to a blacksmith, a potter and at least one architect. On any given day, one can also see trucks from a refrigeration repair outfit that have been there for more years than anyone can recall. And Fred Kueffner's land, just to the north, holds a production woodworking shop and two smaller studios.

Kueffner, a third-generation furniture and cabinet maker who emigrated from Germany in 1954 and came to Arizona in 1969, says the shop is home to the woodworking and contracting business he and his three sons run.

"We spent about seven years restoring the house, the stables and the barn that Mr. Ellis built in the 1930s or '40s," he recalls. "And we finally moved in around 1975 or 1976."

Kueffner says that Zraket, after learning of the rezoning plan, tried to talk him out of joining Ellis: "He said we will be sorry if we get into this, with all the noise and all the crime and all the awful things he painted on the wall what's going to happen to us if we get the zoning. I said, 'George, what are you talking about? We want to stay as a family with our grandchildren and live there. Why would we at the same time plan something to destroy it? It doesn't make any sense. This is a way we can stay here, do our crafts and continue.'" Because Kueffner's property was part of the county in the 1970s (it was annexed by Scottsdale in 1984), his improvements and activities, like those that occurred on the Ellis property before 1965, were legal. And according to the city's code covering nonconforming uses and structures, they still are.

Michael Milillo, who handled the Ellis/Kueffner rezoning request for the city's Planning and Community Development Department, says the city considers all of the varied activities on Ellis' and Kueffner's properties to be legal grandfathered uses.

Don Flack, who directs the city's code enforcement office, says that up until the time of the rezoning case, no one had ever complained about the art colony.

Once the rezoning application was filed, Zraket began challenging some of the uses. "I question whether the ceramic fellow over there is grandfathered," he says. "I know for a fact that he used to sell his ceramics in his driveway down the street. Maybe there was somebody 15 or 20 years ago, but the conforming ordinance of the city is very specific."

He claims that Ellis has a right to continue only uses that predate the city; that uses abandoned for a period of six months or longer cannot be resumed. "And if her live-performance theater or studio burns down to 50 percent or more of its value," he says, "she loses the use. That's what the law says."

However, city officials say the law is somewhat more subtle than that. Flack says a destroyed building could be rebuilt, to today's code, and its use continued. "What it boils down to," says Don Hatter, a senior community planner with the city, "is whether an owner intended to quit the use. If there's no clear record on that--even if the use has paused for a period of time--that use probably could be resumed."

Zoning attorneys say the gray area is because the state statute that gives cities zoning authority also grants property owners protections that may supersede tougher municipal standards. Ellis and Kueffner say their rezoning request stems partly from wanting to clear up any doubts about how their land can be used. For Ellis, the Special Campus-Minor classification would allow more artists to work and sell their wares on the property, giving it the economic shot in the arm it needs to keep pace with its rising tax bill, which came to about $15,000 last year.

Development as preservation is an admittedly tough sell in Scottsdale. "But the irony," says architect Vernon Swaback, "is that Janie's proposal may be the only way to retain the character of the property and the neighborhood. Whether we like it or not, that property is going to change. It's already under increasing economic pressure to become precisely the kind of red-tiled suburbia that has taken over everywhere else."

One doesn't have to look very far, either, to see examples of that. From the canal bank on the eastern edge of Ellis' property, the tiled roofs fill the scene that the Ellises' old photographs showed as empty. And new, small subdivisions of three and more homes an acre have gone in on almost all of the vacant land around Cattle Track. Zraket runs hot and cold about the increasing density of new residential development in the neighborhood. One day he says its added cars and pollution are ruining the area. The next he says a new housing development with three or four homes an acre would be preferable to Ellis' plan to slightly expand her existing retail uses.

But others in the neighborhood are less ambivalent. Bill Welch, who moved into one of the neighborhood's recent housing developments three years ago, and mildly opposes the rezoning, speaks for many when he says he wouldn't want to see a housing development like his on Ellis' property. He thinks much of the area's charm comes from the rural feel retained by Ellis' and Kueffner's land. What concerns him and others is the additional space that Ellis and future owners of the property could develop under the SC-Minor zoning.

"The problem people are having with this is that the city has allowed Janie more room for future expansion than her concept calls for," says Ed Lewis. The zoning documents show that Ellis proposes to add only 15,700 square feet of building space to the combined total of 28,000 square feet already occupying her and Kueffner's property. However, the new zoning permits a total of 85,000 square feet of buildings on the land--about 20 percent of the total acreage.

That 43,000-square-foot difference, says Lewis, "has left plenty of room for people's imaginations to run." That they've run to the Borgata underscores the difficulty of comparing the Ellis property to other places. Its problem is its individuality. There isn't any place like it. And that goes for the zoning, too.

"In fact, if you went looking for a zoning category to fit all the uses there now," says Lisa Collins, who directs the city staff who coordinates rezoning applications, "you'd have a hard time putting it someplace."

According to planners inside and outside the city of Scottsdale, the SC category was introduced several years ago to allow for more flexible kinds of developments, with campus-style mixtures of activities, including retail.

In Ellis' case, the allowed activities range beyond the grandfathered uses to include up to 30,000 square feet of retail, a small restaurant (2,000 square feet) and a cafe (1,500 square feet) which Zraket sees leading to the need for a liquor license.

Ellis says she has no interest in serving alcohol.
Zraket says that he once offered to drop his opposition to Ellis' and Kueffner's application if they withdrew it and applied for Service Residential (SR) property, a category for offices with limited foot and car traffic.

However, neighbors point out that he has vehemently opposed every other SR proposal in the neighborhood. And, according to community planner Don Hatter, that classification wouldn't accommodate the kind of uses that have historically been there or that could reasonably be added, for example, the small but steady level of retail sales that have occurred there for years. And the studios don't fit the ordinance's definition of offices.

The difficulty of finding the right zoning fit for properties like Ellis' and Kueffner's is hardly confined to Scottsdale. Throughout the Valley and the suburban West, rigid zoning categories, which have segregated work from home, have left too few models for small, vital mixed-use developments in residential neighborhoods.

"It's almost as though they are waiting to be invented," says Ignacio San Martin, an associate professor of planning and landscape architecture at Arizona State University's College of Architecture and Environmental Design. Experts agree that such inventions don't come easily. They're too often stymied by community codes, rules and expectations for neat zoning packages that don't suit the changing ways people want to live and work.

George Zraket knows the situation well. A number of years ago, he unsuccessfully petitioned the 12 other homeowners in his subdivision to rescind the property's deed restrictions. Written in 1958, he says, "they no longer matched the kinds of things we want to do with our property." He says they prevent him and other neighbors from adding more houses onto their 1.25 acres. They also prohibit residents from having an office or running a business, as Zraket does, out of the house. But in 1958, who could imagine an office on a desktop? And who could imagine the need for a closer link between work and home? The irony, say friends of Ellis and Kueffner, is that link has been growing on Ellis' and Kueffner's property for 60 years. Some of the fear it has aroused stems from genuine concerns about how an untested zoning category will work in an established neighborhood.

But many people living along Cattle Track say those fears have been fanned by George Zraket. "He has become a political animal over this," says a neighbor. "And my guess is he'll use this as a springboard to run for office."

Zraket says he wants to run for one of the three Scottsdale city council seats open in 1998, and that joining a slate of anti-growth and -rezoning candidates isn't out of the question. He'll make a decision in July. In the meantime, he has work to do.

Once the referendum is decided, he says, "We're going after them on those grandfathered uses. We're going to get that whole mess cleaned out over there."

"My guess," says Michael Ellis, "is he won't be happy until he runs my 87-year-old mother off the land.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >