MORE

Growing Complicated

Attorney Steve Betts makes a point during an open house.

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.

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.

"It should have been a little more publicized."


The Growing Smarter Act was developed last year at Hull's request. Written by Betts (who says he was a scribe rather than an author), it was derided by opponents as the Developers' Protection Act. Many say it was in response to the Sierra Club's attempts to get a growth management initiative on the November 1998 ballot. Hull's staff denies this, saying growth issues were a priority from her first day in office. Yet others admit the work became more pressing once the Sierra Club began circulating petitions.

Included in the act was a number of legislative reforms aimed at improving the general and comprehensive planning processes, increasing the level of public participation in those procedures and requiring rezonings to conform to those plans. It also included a voter-approved measure setting aside $20 million a year for 11 years to aid in the preservation of state lands as open space.

The act also established the Growing Smarter Commission, charged with developing a "homegrown approach to growth management" and coming up with recommendations that will help shape the state for the next few decades. It was asked to find methods "to preserve Arizona's natural environment and quality of life while maintaining economic growth of all its regions."

From the outset, there has been criticism of the process and the people involved.

In November, Hull appointed five members to the commission: Pfister, an Arizona State University professor; Betts, a Phoenix lawyer whose clients have included big developers; Mandy Roberts Metzger, a Flagstaff rancher; Luther Propst, executive director of the Sonoran Institute in Tucson (a conservation group); and Mark Schnepf, the Queen Creek mayor who also owns an "entertainment farm," offering pick-your-own-produce events and festivals.

Also on the panel are the state land commissioner, the head of the state parks department and eight legislators appointed by the heads of the Senate and House. Hull, who said inclusiveness should be a hallmark of the commission, also named a 79-member advisory committee.

Environmentalists charged that the panel was stacked in favor of developers and complained they did not have sufficient representation. Some said they approved of Hull's appointees, but not the legislative ones. One farmer said his interests were not well represented because Metzger is a rancher and Schnepf might be pulled between municipal versus agricultural interests. A rural commission member said more rural residents should have been included.

The group divided into eight subcommittees and scheduled numerous meetings, some conflicting, during the legislative session. This irritated lawmakers who sat on the commission, as well as others. Environmentalists said the daytime meeting schedules aced most of them out because they couldn't afford to miss work to attend.

Francie Noyes, Hull's spokeswoman, says delaying the commission's meetings until after the legislative session would have slowed the process too much. This schedule allowed for the draft to be finished in June, the road trip taken during the summer, and a September 1 target date for the final report. That gives Hull and legislative leadership enough time to review the proposals, craft executive orders, help push for any necessary federal legislation and state constitutional amendments and draft bills for introduction next session.

Pfister and Baier, who have attended every open house, say the commission has continued to work around the central theme of inclusiveness. Once the subcommittees were established, membership on them was voluntary. Noyes says Hull would ask for citizen involvement as she traveled around the state for various reasons. And space was made for anyone who wanted to participate.

But while interest groups and trade associations kept their members abreast of the commission's work, John Q. Arizonan would have had a tough time monitoring things. A Web site offered through the Arizona Planning Association (www.azplanning.org) was supposed to report on subcommittees' work and the open house schedule. But those who checked the site found it wanting. The subcommittee minutes and agendas were incomplete. The first draft report was revised, but that version was added to the site late. And the list of public meetings was poorly updated. The day before the first of three Valley open houses, the calendar only listed Phoenix as the site, with no specific locations or times for the meetings.

 

Noyes blames money for the problems. The commission has no specific budget. Members (even Betts) are donating their time, and although the governor and state agencies are lending staff support, some things just don't get done. Local newspapers did help publicize the gatherings, Noyes says.

In the Valley, 329 people attended open houses at ASU's downtown, east and west campuses. Arlan Colton of the State Land Department, who has manned a table at most of the open houses, says a large variety of folks came out to the events, running the gamut from those with extreme opinions to stakeholders to regular citizens.

"Very few people have seen the 13-page draft before they walked into the room," he says.

Pfister is credited with developing the open-house format, one that some loved, some hated, and everyone thought was novel. Visitors could pick up a copy of the report (and a summarized version), then meander around information tables staffed by casually dressed commission representatives. At the tables, they would be asked to read and respond to eight "white papers" disclosing the most controversial of the proposals being considered by the subcommittees.

Betts praised the format for reducing anxiety levels and lending itself to more meaningful discussion of the issues. "We really want quality, not quantity," he says.

But some visitors complained they felt confused and pressed for time to read, digest and respond to a complicated report. A few said they would have preferred the usual process of a presentation, followed by comments made on the record.

Commission members have encouraged folks to use whatever method they want to express their opinions, even giving them the option of mailing in their questionnaires later. Some claimed the questions were written in such a way to get predetermined responses, but at the open houses, commission representatives were flexible. At the East Valley open house, Baier told one perplexed lady at her table to scratch out all the questions on one sheet and simply write whatever she wanted.

It is Pfister's job to take all the questionnaires, tape recordings, letters, notes and charts and make some sense of them. He wants to get a report to commission members before they begin to formulate the final set of proposals.

Since taking over the helm of the commission, Pfister, generally regarded as a fair and capable leader, has vowed not to take any votes in the process. He wants to operate by consensus, but he admits that system may be self-limiting.

"We may not be able to reach a consensus on all the issues," he says.


Joel Broder, who came to the downtown open house, says he is "first and foremost" a citizen, a resident of Arizona for 21 years. He also works in the land department of a major home builder and is a member of the Sierra Club.

His interest in the growth management debate is keen, saying it's a quality of life issue. Yet he decries the Sierra Club plan as "intellectually dishonest."

Broder wonders whether those pushing the idea of requiring cities and towns to adopt growth boundaries really would be willing to live in high-density housing in downtown Phoenix, taking public transit exclusively. Or do they also want to maintain the lifestyle that so many Arizonans cherish -- homes on large lots with three-car garages and swimming pools?

"Everybody wants low density. Nobody wants growth," he says. "How do you reconcile the two?"


Commission member Steve Betts says the critical question is this: What urban form do Arizonans want?

He and others claim the mandatory growth boundaries being pushed by the environmentalist-backed Citizens Growth Management Initiative will result in doughnut-shaped forms. They envision cities and towns with dense, cosmopolitan urban cores surrounded by open space. Any new growth, Betts says, will be "inward and up." (CGMI backers say "The doughnuts are coming!" cry is ridiculous. Their plan expressly allows citizens in each community to choose how and where they want to grow.)

The Growing Smarter plan refuses to force communities to comply with statewide planning goals. Instead, it offers financial incentives for those who do go along with the state blueprint for growth.

Betts said the Growing Smarter methods could result in a less dense, ultimately more spread-out urban form. Open spaces could be interspersed within an urban area, like the parks and preserves that can be found in the Valley.

"Growing Smarter allows each community to decide for themselves what their urban forms will be," he says.

Not everyone is thrilled with the incentive plans. Fine, the state won't mandate the adoption of growth plans conforming to state goals. But it could withhold funds from those entities that don't opt into the plan.

 

"It's extortion," says Representative Gail Griffin, a Sierra Vista Republican who sits on the commission. "Maybe that's too strong a word to talk to a reporter about. But it's wrong."

Griffin says only three counties passed the Growing Smarter initiative in November. She adds that 80 percent of the state's population is in Maricopa and Pima counties. And she says rural communities don't necessarily want voters, politicians and officials in Phoenix and Tucson dictating to them.

"Maybe the whole state doesn't want their help," she says.

Commission member Propst says this view of the "urban despots imposing their will on rural people" is not universally held in smaller communities. He says he has heard from rural folks "who are very concerned about growth."

Other key elements of the Growing Smarter plan include using incentives to encourage development of infill space in communities, encouraging more regional planning and citizen/voter participation and adding teeth to the laws governing lot splits. The draft says communities may impose service boundaries, outside which any services would have to be paid for by developers or other users. It suggests clarifying statutes so communities can ask developers to pay their "fair share" of the cost of public service in newly developed areas.

Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr and others supporting the CGMI give a resounding ho-hum to the commission's ideas. She calls the draft plan "namby pamby" and says it will merely result in business as usual in Arizona.

"Allowing cities to adopt voluntary growth boundaries doesn't change anything," she says. "They can do that now."

The environmentalists' initiative would require all cities and towns with populations of more than 2,500 to adopt urban growth boundaries allowing for 10 years of growth. And it would make developers pay full cost of additional public facilities, such as streets, sewers and schools for new commercial, industrial and residential projects. Exempted would be developments in certain infill incentive areas.

Betts says developers needn't be forced to pay full impact fees. In today's marketplace, more and more developers are willing to pay their share, he says. A case in point is Anthem, the community in the northwest Valley being built by Del Webb (one of Betts' clients). The development company spent $140 million on infrastructure there before beginning construction of homes, Betts says.

Bahr scoffs at Betts' view of an enlightened attitude toward development fees, pointing to the lawsuit filed by several home builders against Apache Junction when that city tried to make developers help pay for new school construction.

Grant Woods, the former state attorney general who is chairing the CGMI efforts, deflects often-heard criticism that the environmentalists' initiative is too extreme.

"It's what's called for," he says. "We have some basic principles that the state has needed for a long time. Mainly, we require planning and that cities and towns stick to that plan once it's adopted. Up until now, those plans have been worth little more than the paper they are written on. Developers have been able to run roughshod over elected officials."

This is strong stuff coming from a Republican and the son of a construction company owner.

Bahr says Woods' decision to head the initiative drive in March strengthened their efforts. Last year, the group ran out of time and money to get its proposals to a public vote. This time around, the environmentalists' proposal is expected to get to voters next year; already, petition circulators have collected about half of the 101,762 names needed by July 2000 to qualify for the ballot.


Pat Blakely is busily filling out her response forms at a table at the East Valley open house. In front of her is a stack of fliers she hopes others will pick up, describing the Superstition Area Land Trust's efforts to preserve two parcels of scenic state land in the path of development.

She has lived in the Gold Canyon area for five years, having moved here from "the L.A. sprawl." And she firmly believes any new growth plan has to include provisions for open space and conserving state trust land.

"I'm not really against growth, per se, but I just want to preserve our beautiful areas," she says.


The Growing Smarter Commission has more on its complex agenda than urban growth boundaries and impact fees. It's also considering a series of proposals that would help preserve state trust land as open space. Granted to Arizona at statehood through the federal Enabling Act, the 9.3 million acres of trust land are managed by the State Land Department, which must lease or sell the land to generate income for a number of beneficiaries, primarily K-12 schools.

 

Federal legislation would be required before Arizonans could amend the state constitution to allow state trust land to simply be preserved. Senator Jon Kyl has already promised to introduce such a law -- and presumably Congress would act quickly on it -- so voters would be free to vote on any constitutional change in November.

Another idea being considered is a provision that money raised through trust land proceeds be given directly to schools, rather than helping finance the Legislature's education allocation. A long-term stewardship trust also has been proposed, which would require acreage to be dedicated solely for conservation. Whether that means a specific number of acres, a percentage or the ability to exchange that property for other land is open for discussion.

In a questionnaire asking people how much land should be included in a stewardship trust, responses have ranged from 0 percent to 99 percent.

Some of the state's land trust groups have adopted this issue as their main focus during the Growing Smarter process.

Carla, the first-name-only executive director of the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust, says her backers are working on just this for now: convincing the commission to recommend that one million acres of environmentally sensitive state trust land be permanently protected at no cost to taxpayers.

Calling this plan The Arizona Land Legacy, the groups say the Growing Smarter's draft report does not go far enough. They want the permanent and free nature of the conservation trust specifically spelled out.

"'Trust us' doesn't wash anymore," Carla says.

Carla calls "hogwash" the suggestion by some that changing the land department's mission will hurt Arizona's school children. For one thing, she says, there is educational value in children (and others) being able to visit and enjoy unspoiled land. Further, the amount of money raised from trust land (about $74 million in fiscal year 1998) is minimal, about 2 percent of the total schools budget. Last, Carla says, the Legislature uses this money each year to reduce its appropriation to schools, not to supplement it.

The Sierra Club-backed initiative does not specifically address preservation of state trust land. Bahr supports the idea, but says it is only an adjunct issue to a greater problem.

"Even if we protect all nine million acres of state trust land, we still would not have addressed the growth management crisis," she says.

The Sierra Club also believes the $20 million a year for 11 years (plus matching funds) dedicated to preserve state trust lands is just a drop in the bucket. Scottsdale is proposing to preserve 19,000 acres and Phoenix 15,000, yet the total money earmarked for this purpose will likely be able to buy only hundreds of acres.

Elizabeth Stewart, who sits on the board of the Superstition Area Land Trust and was on three Growing Smarter subcommittees, says the Arizona Land Legacy's no-cost provision is a key one to groups like hers, which have a tough time raising the matching funds necessary to apply for any of the $220 million.


Dan Thelander, who farms 5,000 acres of cotton, wheat and other crops in the state, has three green and three red dots in his hand. He gets to place them on a large chart listing nine Growing Smarter issues: state planning goals, open space, improved regional planning, improved growth management tools, update the state land department mission, land exchange authority, rural economic development, private property rights and citizen participation. The green ones are to be placed on subjects he thinks deserve the most attention, the red ones put on the subjects that should rank lowest. He places all three of his green dots under "private property rights."

He is grudgingly supporting the Growing Smarter Commission's work, calling it the lesser of two evils. He worries about growth boundaries and open space provisions that could affect the value and use of a farmer's land.

Thelander, who lives in Tempe, says growers are often at the mercy of market prices, bad weather and other factors. "But one of the things that farmers have, generally, is their land to sell at some point. If the public takes that ability away from us, we'll be up the creek without a paddle."


Private property rights and the purchase of development rights are hot issues. In the open houses around Arizona, the property rights topic has consistently garnered the most dots, indicating that people feel strongly about that issue. But the numbers of red dots versus green ones has varied from place to place. In the Valley, the numbers of dots under this heading far outnumbered the dots placed under any other topic, but the colors were divided.

 

One idea being considered by the Growing Smarter Commission is to let local governments decide whether they want to protect property rights in their general plans.

The panel is also talking about making governments perform a takings analysis before doing anything that would result in taking of private property, requiring owner consent before designating any land as open space, and compensating landowners anytime a regulation "substantially" decreases the value of their property.

The draft report also recommends that a voluntary development rights purchase program be established in which owners of agricultural or ranch lands can be reimbursed for the cost of giving up their rights to develop those lands. Backers of this idea say it could help preserve open lands and could maintain buffer zones around military bases.

Such ideas have been intensely debated, with some saying they are vital to any growth management plans. Others say they are dangerous and unworkable. Bahr says the environmentalists' initiative does not propose any changes in the property rights statutes because proponents believe the U.S. and Arizona constitution adequately protect private property rights.

She says she was dismayed to see some of the options included in the draft report, which rehashed some proposals that previously have been defeated in the Legislature or were vetoed.


Jeannette Fish, executive director of the Maricopa County Farm Bureau, is frustrated at the format at the downtown Phoenix open house. Despite working diligently to read and respond to all the paperwork she picked up at various information tables, she has had time to go through only half of the documents she received. She would have preferred a more formal meeting, with someone in charge of each of the eight subject areas giving a short presentation to anyone stopping by their tables.

While her greatest concerns are making sure agricultural land owners' rights are protected, Fish believes it's time for a change.

"Right now, the growth seems to be wherever anybody wants to put it," she says.

Does Fish think her input will make a difference in the commission's final report?

"I certainly hope so or I wouldn't be here," she says.


After the last open house in Thatcher on Monday, August 9, the commission will attempt to adopt a final report. Whatever it comes up with must then be approved by the governor, who could reject, accept or modify the plans.

Hull has expressed her approval of the process so far, but is taking no position on the draft report, waiting instead to see what the commission ultimately recommends.

Several methods could be used to try to get a package of reforms into law. Some recommendations could become policy through executive order, others need statutory changes. Still others would require voter approval.

Propst, the commissioner representing the Tucson conservation group, says he hopes whatever emerges won't be "so watered down that it's meaningless." On the other hand, he has little faith that the Legislature will do much of value.

"I think it is the lack of leadership in the Legislature that got us into this bind," he says. "We can't look to the same leadership to get us out of it."

He says some expect "a knock-down drag-out" fight among opposing forces before next year's election. Sides are already being chosen. But not everyone is lining up in expected spots.

Woods says many in the business community are beginning to come over to the environmentalists' side. And Arizonans for Responsible Planning, a coalition supporting Growing Smarter, has backers like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, the Arizona Farm Bureau, the Arizona Cattlemen's Association and home builders. But it doesn't have the unswerving loyalty of some major business players.

Tom Browning, the executive director of the Greater Phoenix Leadership who participated in the subcommittee work, says his group is in a "wait and see" mode: "Until the Growing Smarter Commission says what their recommendations are, I can't say if we might support or not support them."

Browning said he was unfamiliar with the newly formed Arizonans for Responsible Planning group. His organization, which supports improved growth management in the state, is made up of 90 local top executives who work on issues affecting the quality of life in the Valley. The group has broadened its membership and changed its name since the days when, as the Phoenix 40, it had a reputation as an exclusive group of behind-the-scenes power brokers.

Woods disagrees with Arizonans for Responsible Planning's argument that Growing Smarter should be given a chance to work before any alternative growth package is considered.

 

"If they come up with something that is truly meaningful, I'm sure we would support it," he says. "But in the meantime, we can't take the chance that either nothing will be done or something that is so weak that it's the equivalent of nothing will be done."

If conflicting measures pass next year, the one that has the most votes likely will become law, although a court interpretation surely would be sought. And if all growth-related propositions fail? No one is giving up.

Growing Smarter and CGMI backers say they'll keep up their efforts to bring acceptable growth management policies to the state. Carla says if the Arizona Land Legacy preservation proposals are not approved, land trust groups are prepared to embark on Plan B: an initiative drive to get on the 2002 ballot.

"I sincerely hope we won't have to wait until 2002," Carla says. "Think of how much damage will occur between now and then. There are so many places that will be lost if we have to wait."

Many have said that even if all these efforts produce nothing next year, the work will have served a worthy purpose -- getting people in a previously growth-happy state to talk seriously about managing development.

But Woods is not so upbeat about the value of merely opening up the dialogue.

"It should have been done 20 years ago," he says.

Contact Laura Laughlin at her online address: llaughlin@newtimes.com


Sponsor Content