POLICE PROBE PLANNING PANEL
The normally sleepy Deer Valley Village Planning Committee has become a whirlwind of political intrigue that pits current and former members of the advisory panel against Phoenix City Councilmember Thelda Williams.
The antagonism centers on the land-use plan for 87 acres west of Deer Valley Airport. The village committee wants the land designated industrial while Williams is pushing for residential development.
Typically, such debates drone on in front of zoning attorneys in near-empty hearing rooms. But this issue has dragged on for more than two years, and has escalated to the point where Phoenix police are investigating a conflict-of-interest complaint against a member of the village committee.
The police investigation centers on Gary White, a Deer Valley realtor who declines to comment other than to say he's "an easy target."
Observers say they believe there's a link between the investigation into White and White's opposition to Williams' pet housing project.
"I'm concerned this may be a witch hunt," says David Conrad, a former member of the Deer Valley planning committee, who lost a bid for the city council last fall.
Williams, who is mounting a campaign for mayor, first mentioned possible impropriety by the Deer Valley Village Planning Committee February 23 during a community forum, saying there was "some litigation pending" regarding the 87 acres.
Williams, whose husband is a police officer, says she was not aware there was a police investigation into the matter until New Times told her on Monday.
"All I know is the [property] owners were making accusations of some kind of conflict of interest of a member of the committee," Williams says.
Conrad wants the police probe widened to include Williams' relationship with Michael Longstreth, a Phoenix real estate broker and former chairman of the city's Aviation Advisory Board. Williams appointed Longstreth to the board, which monitors operations at the city's airports.
Longstreth, a longtime friend and political adviser to Williams, was the primary force pushing a Continental Homes plan to build a subdivision on the 87 acres, located on the northwest corner of 19th Avenue and Pinnacle Peak Road, about a half-mile from Deer Valley Airport. Longstreth stood to earn a six-figure commission if the deal went through.
City records show Longstreth lobbied the city Planning and Zoning Commission and city council to support the housing development even though Aviation Department officials weighed in against the Continental housing development. The Aviation Advisory Board did not take a position.
Aviation staffers weren't the only ones against the project. The Deer Valley Village Planning Committee repeatedly voted to send nonbinding recommendations to the city Planning and Zoning Department opposing the subdivision. Based on the Planning Department's opposition, the city's five-member Planning Commission also rejected Longstreth's proposal. But Williams kept the issue alive before the city council while serving as acting mayor last year ("A Lame Duck in Hot Water," August 11, 1994).
Longstreth needed to clear two bureaucratic hurdles to get the subdivision rolling. First, the city had to change the general plan designation for the land from industrial to residential. Then he needed to win site-specific zoning approval.
With Williams' strong support, Longstreth almost pulled off a real estate coup. Williams convinced the city council to reject the recommendations of the Planning Commission and approve the general plan change to residential. But Longstreth fell short of winning zoning approval for the development.
The city council attached several caveats to the zoning plan that were unacceptable to Continental Homes, which withdrew its request last August.
At the September 15 Deer Valley Village Planning Committee meeting, White made a motion to change the parcel's designation in the general plan back to industrial.
Conrad seconded the motion, and the nonbinding recommendation was forwarded to the city's planning staff, which quickly concurred with the committee's recommendation.
"Approval of this General Plan amendment will eliminate the potential for the development of an isolated residential neighborhood surrounded by industrial land uses," the planning staff concluded in an October 24 report.
The proposed amendment was to go before the Planning and Zoning Commission at its December 8 meeting. But the amendment never saw the light of day.
Williams fired off a rambling letter to the Deer Valley Village Planning Committee on October 26, urging it to "re-evaluate the timeliness" of changing the land-use designation.
The Deer Valley committee agreed with Williams' request, placing the item back on its November 17 agenda. This time, the motion to approve the amendment was made by Tim Norton--rather than White--and once again, it was passed unanimously.
"The committee has always felt that residential was not in concert with the planning in the area based on the airport and industrial uses that have already appeared out there," says Mary Hudak, whose term as Deer Valley planning committee chairwoman expired at the end of 1994.
The committee's wishes, however, were thwarted again.
Six days before the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, an attorney representing Chicago Title Insurance Company--which holds the 87 acres in trust for a group of more than 20 individuals--filed a complaint with the Phoenix Planning Department, alleging that White had a conflict of interest.
Lawyer Jeanne Y. Chanen alleged that White offered his real estate brokerage services to the landowners after the Deer Valley committee first voted to recommend changing the general plan in September.
According to Chanen, this wasn't the first time White had sought to benefit from his committee participation.
"Mr. White has attempted to act outside the accepted scope of participation on the Deer Valley Planning Committee before with respect to this property and has been chastised for disregarding his conflict of interest," Chanen wrote in a December 2 letter to David Richert, Phoenix's planning director.
Chanen asked Richert to remove the committee's recommendation from the December 8 Planning and Zoning Commission agenda and sought White's immediate dismissal from the committee.
Chanen's complaint landed in the Phoenix City Attorney's Office, which forwarded Chanen's letter to Phoenix police. The police began interviewing city planning officials on January 17. City planners say the investigation was ongoing as of last week.
No matter what the probe may find, it will have no impact on the Deer Valley committee's recommendation that the general plan designation for the 87 acres revert to industrial.
"Even if Mr. White had a conflict and should not have participated in the vote . . . that would not invalidate any action taken by the village planning committee," says Phoenix assistant city attorney Michael House.
All the police probe appears to have accomplished is stall any action by the Planning Commission on the village committee's recommendation, leaving the parcel with a split personality--a general plan designation of residential and a zoning classification of industrial.
The delay in amending the general plan is just fine with the landowners, says attorney David K. Jones, who also represents the ownership group along with Chanen. The split designation allows the group to market the land as industrial or residential, he says.
Conrad says such confusion is the last thing the area needs right now, especially when demand for Phoenix industrial land is heating up.
"We don't want to send the wrong signals to the development community by having this big chunk of glaringly inconsistent land-use designation in the middle of a prime industrial area," he says.
The police investigation also fits nicely into Williams' long-term plans for the property by keeping the residential designation in place.
Last summer, after Continental Homes withdrew its zoning request, Williams reiterated her support for building homes on the parcel located adjacent to a 24-hour-a-day, $8 million sheet-metal-stamping plant.
"If it's the right builder and they are quality homes, it's possible," she said.
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