The battle lines are drawn: Pro-growthers versus anti-growthers. The tactics are ugly. The outcome is uncertain.
City Council meetings have degenerated into philosophical shoving matches. Angry residents troop to council meetings to complain that rapid development is destroying their community. Councilmembers, in turn, lecture their constituents on private-property rights.
Mayor Daiton Rutkowski came within an eyelash of having assault charges filed against him by a woman who claims Rutkowski manhandled her during a break in a contentious March 23 council meeting.
Jill Kaoni, a 39-year-old single mother of two young children, told police Rutkowski grabbed her arm and verbally threatened her after she told the mayor a referendum drive would be launched to overturn the council's approval of a major development.
Kaoni told police that after Rutkowski grabbed her a second time as she attempted to leave the city hall, he yelled: "You and your kids aren't going to be able to live here."
Rutkowski admits he told Kaoni that she and her children would not be able to live in Prescott. But he says he didn't mean it as a threat. Instead, Rutkowski says he was referring to the increase in the cost of living in Prescott if slow-growth proponents put a clamp on development.
"I said . . . 'You're going to create a community where kids will not be able to live,'" Rutkowski tells New Times. "And she said, 'My kids?' And I said, 'Well, anybody's kids.'"
Rutkowski denies grabbing Kaoni, although he says he may have touched her.
"I might have held her elbow to walk her around somebody, but I don't even remember that," Rutkowski says.
Kaoni says she decided not to press charges against the mayor after she received a March 24 letter of apology from Rutkowski, written on city stationery.
The confrontation is indicative of the heightened acrimony the development debate has generated. In the past, development projects typically were opposed only by those living next door.
Now, increasing numbers of residents believe Prescott is being ruined by a steady stream of well-heeled newcomers who want to make their hometown, well, everyone's hometown (Welcome to Prescott, California," February 9).
Those fears escalated last month when Money magazine rated Prescott as the nation's top retirement location. After years of simmering discontent with the City Council's rubber-stamping of development projects, slow-growth advocates are going on the offensive.
For the first time, there is an organized opposition group that seeks greater input on development decisions. The group, Citizens for Sensible Growth, has launched a referendum drive to overturn the council's approval of a large residential development. The group also is studying whether to recall the entire council.
CSG is spearheaded by Jeri Smith-Fornara, who last month left the city's Planning and Zoning Commission after 12 years. Fornara angrily denounced the commission during her last meeting as a member, claiming the panel had sold out to developers.
She tells New Times that for years at least four other commissioners--a quorum--routinely met for lunch prior to meetings. Fornara claims the luncheons violated the state's open meeting law and that she brought this to the attention of the city's attorney, but nothing was done.
Community organizing is nothing new to Fornara. She helped organize a 3,000-member group several years ago that mounted a successful campaign to prevent Phelps Dodge Corp. from developing a copper mine just outside Prescott.
CSG's first attack is on the council's approval of a development agreement for Prescott Lakes, which calls for 1,600 homes spread over 620 acres of rolling hills that contain two small lakes. If the group is successful in collecting about 500 signatures by April 23, the question would be placed on the September ballot.
The citizens' group is opposed to Prescott Lakes because of the expected impact on the city's already overburdened infrastructure.
"Who will pay for the schools? Who will pay for the roads? Who will pay for the police?" Kaoni asks.
The answer, CSG members fear, is that current residents will face higher taxes, more congestion and increased crime. CSG members also say they want developers to meet their stipulations for future growth rather than the city routinely making changes according to developers' desires.
"What we want is controlled, planned growth with a long-range view," says Louise Park, a CSG leader.
Rutkowski says that is exactly what Prescott Lakes provides. He and other councilmembers say the area is already zoned for 2,000 units and could be developed in a piecemeal fashion. They praised the developer, The M3 Companies of Phoenix, for presenting a plan that reduces the original density of the area while providing for a park, hiking trail and commercial development.
Opposition to the Prescott Lakes development, Rutkowski says, is just a smoke screen for the real motives of the slow-growthers, which is to pull Prescott off the development map. Even if slow-growthers are successful, Rutkowski says, Prescott will still be impacted by the rapid growth in nearby Prescott Valley, Chino Valley and unincorporated areas of Yavapai County.
Future growth in Prescott may fall outside the control of either the citizens' group or the council. Instead, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may indirectly dictate growth patterns because of Prescott's antiquated and leaking sewage collection system.
The city nearly was hit with a sewer hookup moratorium because of its failure to control effluent in heavy rains, says Tom Bell, a DEQ surface-water compliance officer. Torrential rainfall last winter sent untreated sewage cascading down several Prescott streets, through a schoolyard and down a creek, Bell says.
"If we hadn't gotten some cooperation from them, we were on the verge of calling for a moratorium," Bell says.
Since then, the city has spent several million dollars trying to pinpoint the problem, but the problem has not been solved, Bell says.
The state and the city are now preparing to enter into a consent agreement under which Prescott would agree to take certain steps to ensure that the sewage treatment plant and collection system come into compliance.
Until the consent decree is signed--including a timetable for Prescott to comply with state and federal surface-water-quality rules--the department will not approve the construction of new subdivisions in Prescott, Bell says.
A handful of sewer connections are available for individual houses, but Prescott's boom days are limited until it literally gets its shit together.