Growing Smarmier

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.

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.

"This whole thing is ludicrous as far as I'm concerned," says Cave Creek Schools superintendent John Gordon.

He sees no small irony in the fact that the Land Department, whose primary mission is to build a trust fund to benefit schools, is so cavalier toward school districts that are bursting at the seams.

"The State Land Department should have said they're going to auction Section 16 off, but with 16 acres set aside for Cave Creek schools," Gordon says.

US Homes and Del Webb discussed donating 10 acres of Section 16 to the school district, then decided that the precious topography could simply not accommodate a school and nearly 800 new houses. Now, Gordon says, the developers are offering to give the district $685,000, the price they paid for 10 acres of Section 16. Of course, on the open market, that won't buy enough land to hold a school campus.

After several minutes of terse responses to my questions, Jerry Smith, a spokesman for US Homes, makes a curious observation. He reminds me that the cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale have made open space a priority. He calls such efforts "important responsibilities" and notes that "both those cities are stepping up to the plate. They're doing a good job and forward planning on that."

Translation: Open space is no concern of ours. We're going to slather stucco on every buildable inch of Section 16.

The school district wasn't Section 16's only institutional detractor.

The mayors of Cave Creek and Carefree cited concerns about overburdened infrastructure and roads when they asked the Land Department to delay the auction of Section 16.

So did Tom Milton, Phoenix's vice mayor, whose council district includes Section 16.

Milton notes that Section 16 is outside the city's designated growth corridor. By selling the land, he says, the state is promoting sprawl.

"When you take a look at the City of Phoenix's growth plans, I think it is leapfrog development," Milton says. "I do support people's personal property rights, but we do have the responsibility."

So you can imagine that Milton was a bit peeved when he learned that city staff had responded favorably to the developers' proposal to vastly inflate the area's supply of three-car garages.

Because the land is already zoned for residential development, there is little Milton can do to stop the bulldozers. But he has withdrawn support for a golf course on the site, effectively killing one, and is making certain that the city does nothing to help fund roads or sewers.

"The City of Phoenix won't be leaping to assist the developers," Milton says. "We're not going to provide any infrastructure. The developers have to do all that themselves."

A chap named Gordon Rodgers is undoubtedly watching this melodrama with bemusement.

Rodgers was hired in early 1999 to direct the Land Department's asset management division. He promptly produced a report that has become notorious.

Rodgers' missive bluntly indicts the Land Department for wasteful, myopic policies.

The report notes that "it would not be prudent" to sell Trust Land on the far fringes of the city, because that land will only increase in value as development proceeds. "The Department should do what developers should normally do, which is to sell the more valuable parcels [nearer developed areas] and wait for the greater-distant, less-demand parcels to gain in value prior to selling or leasing," he writes.

He must have had Section 16 in mind.

"As I-17 will be near Gridlock in year 2005 and as our planning acts state we should not promote urban sprawl and leapfrog development and as there appears to be currently a 10-25 year supply in inventory [near developed lands], we should now consider closure of all applications" from would-be developers, Rodgers wrote.

He suggested that Jomax Road, which is well below Section 16, would serve as a good boundary in north Phoenix. Under his proposal, only state lands south of Jomax should be sold in the near future, and they should be disposed of slowly and methodically, to maximize profits for the trust.

The Land Department initially denied it had Rodgers' report. But when Cindy Foster's attorney threatened to sue for it, voilà, it suddenly appeared.

Land Department spokesman Nick Simonetta says Rodgers produced the report on his own, not under the aegis of the state.

"It was nothing that the Land Department had him generate," Simonetta says. "I know for sure that Mike [Anable] has said in the past to me personally that that was A, not work product, and B, that the conclusions in there weren't -- what's the best way to put it? -- that he didn't think much of the conclusions."

Apparently not. After reading Rodgers' analysis, Anable fired him.

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