Thu, Feb. 27

There is no need to worry about developers

This is in response to Dan Engler’s “we need more representation from developers in our general plans” editorial.

Dan, if you weren’t a newsman, I’d say, “where have you been for the past 10 years?”

Our region is exploding with growth, and this explosion is being fueled by developers. Our county is one of the fastest growing rural county in the nation. Yavapai County and the Verde Valley already has experienced an incredible 4-percent annualized growth rate through most of the 1990s, a rate considered by most planners to be unsustainable.

You don’t have to worry about developers, Dan. They already run the show, with or without general plans. I learned this from first-hand observation while serving eight years on the Cottonwood Planning and Zoning commission. Let me give you the nickel behind-the-scenes tour of how the development process works in Cottonwood, and, with minor variations, throughout the region.

First of all, nothing happens until a developer brings a proposal to staff. So right there you can see that developers are not only always represented, but they drive the process.

Next, staff reviews the proposal for fit with zoning regulations. If it’s not an exact fit, staff makes a judgment call whether or not to take it to the next step, the planning commission, and thus staff wields great power in the process. Because most zoning allows a wide variety of conditional uses, staff has great latitude to approve proposals that don’t quite fit zoning by creating a number of conditions, which can get very complex. More often than not, the citizens that sit on the commission and council only refine these conditions after staff recommends approval.

If the developer is a big-buck outfit from Phoenix, like a Del Webb or Grace, they may back up their proposal with “the suits.” You know what I mean, the slick top-dollar architects, lawyers, and consultants. And let me tell you, it is very difficult for our small town staff and citizens on these commissions and councils to not get a bit intimidated when the applicant comes in with this much firepower. And yes, developers skillfully use every persuasive trick in the book to get what they want.

Money is always part of the picture. If the project potentially generates a lot of sales taxes, it’s almost unfair to ask staff to be entirely objective, since their salaries are paid by these very same taxes. Paid staff ultimately answers to elected officials, and the way big business lobbies and funds election campaigns for politicians is common knowledge, Dan.

Yes, staff tweaks the project with conditions to try and minimize impact. But, there’s a wide variation in how far each government is willing to go to minimize negative impacts on the neighbors. From a developer’s point of view, right now Sedona is probably the toughest place to work, and Cottonwood is the easiest – at least according to published articles and newsletters by John D. Miller’s real estate and development company in Sedona.

This process may result in an entrenched power elite between big developers and government officials – both elected and paid, who use development to fund and grow big government.

This usually unintentional but potent big government-big business alliance basically runs the development show.

Two examples vividly demonstrate this alliance in action. One is the regrettable decision several years ago by the Arizona State Legislature, pushed by realtors and developers, to increase the number of allowable lot splits up to five. This has resulted in major problems in rural Arizona, and right here in the Verde Valley, with unplanned, unregulated, out-of-control wildcat subdivisions.

A second is the now commonly-used practice of “development agreements,” an entirely secret, behind-closed-doors process of hammering out binding agreements between developers and governments. Yes, these agreements must eventually go through and be modifiable at public hearings, but I believe those hearings are often just a rubber stamp because the agreements are pre-approved by the elected officials.

Yavapai County has already entered into just such a development agreement with Prescott developer Fred Ruskin, one that could potentially devastate the Verde Valley with eight square miles of new development on National Forest land. Cottonwood has probably already entered into multiple development agreements with every one of the property owners in the newly annexed Verde Santa Fe areas around 89A and Cornville and Bill Grey Roads. The rest of us don’t know for sure about these pre-approval agreements because they’re secret. And the public is entirely shut out of this behind-closed-doors process.

Now this is where general plans come in to help level the playing field, Dan. Without general plans, there’s no organized, scientific method to determine and incorporate the best interests of the majority of people. Balancing the big business-big government alliance with the interests of the people is now recognized as so important, it’s required by law that every county and city in Arizona must have a general plan, and beginning this year, that plan must be approved by a vote of the people.

Good general plans get wall-to-wall input, as much as humanly possible, to arrive at the best possible consensus vision for a community’s future. Good planners actively involve their citizenry, seek out and solicit their input, and yes, this includes developers, realtors, contractors, land speculators, and everyone else.

However, consensus means doing what works for the majority of people, and the reality is most people are not developers, Dan. The needs of developers must be balanced fairly with everyone else’s. And what you’re finding today in our region is most people are quite understandably saying “whoa, let’s slow down a little bit.”

Today, most reasonable folks say yes, let’s have growth, we understand no growth is stagnation. But let’s distinguish between good growth and bad growth. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Let’s have carefully planned, quality growth that complements and improves our quality of life, not the growth-for-growth’s-sake sprawl mentality that takes it away.

I believe this kind of positive and quality growth consensus vision is present in the Cottonwood General Plan, Dan, which seeks to protect our irreplaceable open space from sprawl, and which prioritizes quality of life issues over economic interests. I believe this consensus vision is also present in the new Yavapai County General plan, which seeks to avoid turning us into something like Maricopa County.

But even with good general plans, the playing field isn’t always level, because the law doesn’t say the plans have to be actually followed. There are wide variations in how each community handles this.

Sometimes general plans are essentially ignored, as was the case, in my opinion, with Cottonwood’s Dead Horse annexation, which included only minimum public involvement at council meetings. Compare that to Sedona, where a “major amendment” to their plan requires such proactive steps as a citizen participation program, a city-wide notification mailer, and hearings at both the planning commission and council levels. In any event, it’s up to the people to ensure their elected representatives work for their general plan.

So, bottom line, Dan, your concern for developers being represented is valid, but you don’t have to worry about them. They’re well funded, well organized, and along with their big government allies, really know how to work the system. Developers can and will take care of themselves, you can count on it. It’s everyone else we need to worry about.

Steve Block is a former member and chairman of the Cottonwood Planning and Zoning Commission.

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