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New Zoning Rules Irk Developers

Phoenix's effort to revamp its thirty-year-old zoning code, an undertaking aimed at weaving the city's haphazard growth into the patterns laid out by the city's general plan, is running into a not-so-slight obstacle: developers.

No group has demonstrated more interest in the code's revision, and the developers trumpet their enthusiasm for changes that would make the code more logical and readable.

They just don't want to see it become more enforceable, if recent comments on two proposals are any guide.

The proposals, made by city consultants hired to rewrite the code, would allow officials to take quick action against developers who ignore zoning requirements or who have uncorrected violations on past projects.

"As it stands now, the city has to go through the entire re-zoning process if it wants to revoke someone's zoning approval because of violations," says Peter Martori, vice president of the Greater Phoenix Neighborhood Coalition. "Anytime there's a violation the zoning office has to go through the courts and the city attorney, with all the attendant legal costs. The public has to shell out tons of money to enforce the code."

But the Ordinance Revision Effort (ORE), a coalition of developers and business types involved in rewriting the code, trashed the new enforcement proposals in comments filed with the city planning department.

"Unacceptable," harrumphed the coalition in response to a proposal calling for automatic revocation of a project's zoning approval if any conditions of approval are violated or ignored. "A revocation procedure must provide an opportunity to either cure the default or amend the approval. The issue of due process must be analyzed."

And the developers find the second proposal, which would allow the city to suspend action on zoning applications if uncorrected code violations exist on other projects by the same developer, even more obnoxious. "The propriety of such a provision is questionable and should be deleted," the coalition said.

Martori, the sole citizen representative in the ORE coalition, snorts at such posturing. "The planners have come up with two new enforcement suggestions and the coalition is against both of them," he says. "They seem to be saying, `We're not interested in enforceability.' And where the proposal to suspend proceedings on new applications is concerned, they apparently aren't even interested in discussing it."

Not so, says Dave Bixler, executive director of Valley Partnership, one of the groups involved in ORE. All the developers want is "more clarification," he says. "The reason for our comments really was to ask, `What do you mean by this language?'"

Bixler answers his own question: "If they mean just what the language says, then it's pretty onerous. We feel there should be the opportunity to fix a problem instead of just waking up one day and finding your zoning approval revoked."

And as to linking compliance on past projects with approval of current proposals, Bixler says, "Our comments are not to say you shouldn't live by the rules. The question on that is: Does this mean if you have ten projects in town and there's a problem with one, they are all in trouble?"

"That's a pretty tough regulation if that's truly what's intended," he adds.

Tough enough to discourage the weaseling, fudging and eleventh-hour "reinterpretations" that have caused such headaches for neighbors who thought they had a deal with a developer? Activist Martori, for one, hopes so. "The proposed changes would provide a quick, administrative means to enforce the code," he says.

And, notes city zoning administrator David Richert, it's a popular idea with a lot of people. "The suspension of development-review proceedings needs further discussion," Richert told ORE in a recent letter. "However, the proposal has received favorable comment from many parties."

Bixler says all his folks want is a chance to sit down and talk with the city about the proposed enforcement provisions, which they hope to do next week. "Nothing is cast in stone," he notes. "This document is a long way from being completed."

Members of the public, meanwhile, can have their say at any of the numerous public meetings being held throughout the city to gather comment on the new zoning code. The number to call for information is 262-7131; the next public meeting takes place Monday evening.

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Kathleen Stanton