The year that was in Jerome
Leaning wall, tourism outreach resolved while impact of vacation rentals, water supply, new mayor unfold
JEROME – The Town of Jerome managed to not only survive, but thrive in 2016. Despite its infrastructure woes, it earned recognition by the Arizona Office of Tourism as the second most visited site in the Verde Valley (next to Sedona).
“The Leaning Wall of Jerome” remained a thorn in the side of town officials, residents and tourists alike as a popular parking area remained closed pending repairs of a surrounding wall that had become unstable.
Back in Dec. 2014, town officials noted that the nearly-century old upper wall had begun leaning at the motorcycle parking lot across from the Spirit Room on SR 89A and Jerome Avenue. After failing to find contractors willing to tackle the repair due to sketchy infrastructure, the town pursued various consultants, finally landing an agreement Jan 26 with Westland Resources.
The on-gain, off-again project ran some $20,000 over the $30,000 repair grant, but by spring 2016, visitors were able to park in the lot once again.
Meanwhile, Jerome Police Chief Alan Muma initiated EMT cross training of his police officers to better respond to emergencies. This move was supported by Jerome Fire Chief Rusty Blair, who reported his volunteer agency was consistently short-staffed.
Spring brought with it a decisive blow in Jerome’s attempts at regulating short-term vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods.
The town was subject of a lawsuit by the Goldwater Institute on behalf of owners of Jerome vacation rental properties. The homeowners maintained that their business licenses had already been issued when the town advised them the ventures did not conform to Residential zoning.
Meanwhile, the town maintained it had a responsibility to maintain the residential character of its neighborhoods through its zoning regulations, which restrict short-term lodging to Transient Housing areas.
The expense of continuing the legal fight was a bone of contention among residents and some town officials. However, the fate of the Yavapai County Superior Court ruling was short-circuited when Governor Doug Ducey signed Senate Bill 1350 on May 12, allowing Arizona homeowners to rent their homes on a nightly or weekly basis regardless of existing zoning.
“These are not residences, these are commercial activities,” Mayor Lew Currier said. “People who live in residential zones choose to be there to have the peace and quiet and joys of a residential neighborhood. This could be denied them because of this project.”
The resilient residents of Jerome faced mandatory water restrictions beginning June 22 when a water emergency was declared by town officials. Usage limits were put into place and non-essential watering was banned.
“We are in a crisis situation mode,” said Mayor Lew Currier. “The first step to my mind is to cut down on usage.”
Yet just as mysterious as the loss of spring flow was its merciful rebound some 10 days later. Suspected causes ranged from livestock to mechanical problems to drought. (Later in the year, a hydrologist found virtually no water replenishment since the 1980’s due to a lack of recorded snowfall from a 40-year warming trend).
And as occurred last year, an increase in town taxes was approved. A 3 percent bed tax brought the hotel tax rate to 6.5 percent as of Nov. 1, and a new 3.5 percent commercial rental tax was instituted.
The Aug. 31 primary brought a change of face to town leadership when incumbent Mayor Lew Currier - - a fixture in the town since the 1960’s - - was defeated by Council member and Yavapai County Education Service Agency employee Frank Vander Horst. Other changes included long-time residents Abe Stewart and Doug Freund stepping-down from council to be replaced by Vice Mayor Jay Kinsella (former mayor and current Jerome Historical Society member) and Council member Hunter Bachrach (owner of a local machine shop involved in energy exploration).
The loss of summer leaves also brought with it the loss of Jerome icon Don Robertson, 73, on Oct. 17. His Gold King Mine tourist stop perched one mile up from the Jerome fire station featured nearly 100 vintage vehicles. Robertson’s screaming yellow 1928 Studebaker Indy race car turned heads as he drove in local parades.
“If I asked you to draw me a picture of a 49er miner - - a guy with a mule, a pick and shovel - - it would be Don,” said Police Chief Muma.
As the Leaning Wall controversy faded away, it wasn’t long before the Sliding Jail controversy erupted.
Until 1964, the century-old Sliding Jail on Hull Avenue belonged to the historical society, which it deeded to the town for $1 with the provision “to have and to hold, for the purposes of providing recreational facilities for the general public.” Since that time, the structure deteriorated to the point that no admittance was allowed. That prompted the Jerome Historical Society to formally request the Sliding Jail back so it could complete its restoration and encourage access to the adjoining ball courts.
However, some residents and members of council cried foul, concerned with the town losing title to the property. The fate of the Sliding Jail remains with town council.
Other changes this fall included formalizing public feedback at town meetings. Jerome was unique in that members of the public could voice their questions from their seats most anytime during meetings. However, incoming Mayor Vander Horst joined other municipalities in invoking Robert’s Rules of Order, requiring the public to identify themselves and approach the podium with questions at an appropriate time.
A look ahead into 2017
As the Town of Jerome looks ahead to 2017, Mayor, Vander Horst announced his upcoming priorities would be infrastructure, parking, historic preservation and cooperation with other agencies.
Whether the deed to the Sliding Jail remains with the town or returns to the historical society, Jerome has a history of carrying-on through calamity. Despite crumbling walls and sketchy buildings - - or perhaps because of it - - over 1 million people annually choose to visit this unique mountainside art town. The impact of vacation rentals will undoubtedly be felt in the quirky neighborhood streets, and town officials continue to seek answers to last year’s water shortage. Yet through it all, Jerome continues to cast its beacon of individuality upon the more traditional towns below.