Northern Annexation think tank draws crowd

“Fifty-thousand people is a lot,” said Jane Moore of Jerome, "the city should be looking at conserving more land.”

“Fifty-thousand people is a lot,” said Jane Moore of Jerome, "the city should be looking at conserving more land.”

COTTONWOOD -- Officials and citizens from throughout the Verde Valley packed the meeting room of the Cottonwood Public Safety Building Tuesday morning. They all wanted to weigh in on Cottonwood's proposed annexation of 10 square miles of State Trust land, just north of the city. Another 8 square miles of forest land lies just to the west of the State Land tract and is also targeted for inclusion in the city in a separate process.

Curt Johnson of the firm Coe & Van Loo led the discussion for the city, explaining changes in the proposed master plan for the tract that resulted from the last public meeting in January.

A key player in Tuesday's talks was Ed Dietrich, the Director of the State Land Department. He reminded the crowd that the land is not "public land," but more like private land that is held in trust for 13 beneficiaries, mostly K-12 schools and universities.

Called a "Think Tank," the session did not seem to break new ground other than show some changes to the conceptual land use map for the project.

Johnson said that open space inclusions within the city require 30 percent for residential zoning and 10 percent for commercial zoning. The proposed master plan, he said, will exceed those numbers by 200-acres.

The proposal follows both the city's plan and also incorporates issues from the Cornville Community Plan, which is adjacent. He noted that the process is looking at a "more diverse" residential-workforce type housing, and it is exploring how to protect vegetation. He says wildlife corridors have been increased from the originally proposed 30-feet width to 100- and 200-feet wide.

Johnson says consultants are investigating how the city might be able to combine open space with wastewater effluent discharge to benefit both. Alternative development codes are also a possibility.

The city is also working with the State Transportation Department on the road alignments. SR-89a cuts diagonally through the 6,000 acres.

Many were on hand to oppose the annexation and planning. When a flurry of questions began, Manager Doug Bartosh reminded the crowd that the land may not even be developed for 50 years. But, he said it is important to plan in advance.

Bob Rothrock, a former city councilmember and a President of the Verde Valley Land Preservation Institute, said that unused wells monitored on the north side of the Verde River already show a 15-year drop of up to 40-feet in their levels. At the same time, he said, Cottonwood is planning a project with 23,000 homes to accommodate 50,000 people.

Utility Director Dan Lueder countered that the geology on "that side of the river is much more unstable. You have to look at it in the long term. Those well levels can vary by over 100 feet."

Rothrock also urged the city to make an arrangement like the one that State Land approved with Cave Creek. That town will acquire 4,000 acres of land as open space with density transferred to 2,000 acres available for development. The town will annex the entire 6,000 acres.

Dietrich said the Cave Creek example "is not even remotely comparable to this land. The Cave Creek land is un-developable. It is totally different land. This land, which is surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of forest open space, will be developed."

Citizens often seemed confused by the map and wanted to know where their local roads were on the map. Johnson said they would be more clearly marked in the next version. The presentation will be placed on the city's web site, according to Bartosh.

A woman suggested the annexation is a done deal. Another audience member agreed, "It seems like it's going to happen. It looks like it is being shoved down our throat."

"Fifty-thousand people is a lot," echoed Jane Moore of Jerome, the city should be looking at conserving more land."

Dorothy O'Brien of the Big Park Regional Council asked if there had been research into alternatives. She suggested "coalition-building" for more preservation.

Clarkdale Mayor Doug Von Gausig applauded the City of Cottonwood for holding the meetings, which he said were very pro-active.

"A lot of people are afraid," he said. "This is a big scary thing. Getting control of it is critical." He also urged Cottonwood not to give up on the effort, "as painful as it may be at first."

At the same time, Von Gausig said Cottonwood has a chance to become an example for the region. When complaining to the Prescott communities about draining the Verde River, "they say, 'but you do it there.' Cottonwood has a chance to show how to do it right."

Rob Adams, Sedona's mayor, also applauded the open think tank process. He agreed that it would be better to see the land remain as open space, but it should be planned as a "sustainable community."

The local-control theme was encouraged by realtor Phil Terbell, who said all developed projects were built "on land just like this." He suggested the county was too remote to be responsive to local needs and pointed to the inadequacies of Verde Village, built by the Queen Creek Cattle Co. He suggested that the State Land had the prospects for a massive water farm with a watershed of millions of acres.

Applause also came from Judy Miller of he Cornville Community Association, who said that the city has answered many of Cornville's questions. But, she also read from a number of issues she felt had not been addressed and she urged Cottonwood to "use a legitimate open process to look at all options."

When asked about the proposed annexation of forest lands, Manager Bartosh said that process is also "going really slowly."

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