“Lines in the Sand: Future Growth at Turning Point,” Arizona Business Magazine

by Lori DeBoer

It may not seem like it is in the best interest of developers to help curb the Valley’s runaway growth, but one group of real estate players believes otherwise.

Valley Partnership—founded in 1987 as an advocate of responsible development for commercial, industrial and master-planned real estate developers—says that growth management benefits the industry in the long run, making environmental stewardship good business. In this case, developers are not simply looking at developing individual projects, but in building sustainable communities.

“What makes a viable community? We are very market driven and we want you to come to our sites, to shop in our malls and office in our buildings, so if we don’t build a quality project that meets your expectations, you won’t do that. So we like to be on the cutting edge of responsible development,” says Maeve Johnson, executive director of Valley Partnership. “Going in and maximizing your profits and minimizing your projects doesn’t get a good return for you or your community. We have to work and live in this community and we want to be a participant in developing the best community we can.”

Valley Partnership has worked toward building better communities by sponsoring informational seminars and providing networking opportunities for its members. Every year, it identifies a project it can work on to give back to the community. Now picking out its 12th project, Valley Partnership some of its contributions have been on a drug elimination/family awareness program in Glendale and working with the Phoenix Youth at Risk group to put in an outdoor dance theatre.

To be fair, not all of Valley Partnership’s members believe in environmentalism, nor have all of its programs have been selfless. It has successfully fought against the assessment of development fees by school boards, the inclusion of the Arizona Department of Transportation in developer agreements and the expansion of disclosure requirements for sub-dividers. It has also lobbied for private property rights legislation, the phase out of the commercial lease tax and the reduction of a property tax assessment ratio for Class I.

Nevertheless, Valley Partnership’s willingness to consider environmental impact issues successfully brings once-radical ideas into the mainstream. Even Arizona State Senator Marc Spitzer–who calls the environmental group the Sierra Club the “Pot Pol of Cambodia”–admits that planners “don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, so to speak. If we become L.A. and nobody wants to move here, that’s bad for their business.”

Developers are blameless for the byproducts of the Valley’s unchecked growth rate, maintains Johnson, because they are simply reacting to consumer demand. “It’s not the developers who create these situations, it’s growth that creates these issues, and that is why growth management is at a crux right now.”

Indications of a greater environmental sensitivity include a greater awareness of how projects integrate with their surroundings and the maintenance of open spaces, natural washes and other aspects of the natural environment. Much of this is being done as land costs are rising are rising, says Johnson, and developers are also trying to balance open spaces with the goal of achieving a higher density and less traffic congestion. Valley Partnership supports the implementation of a mass transit system in Phoenix, though Johnson cautions that this is not going to be a panacea for traffic problems.

Unregulated wildcat subdivisions and leap-frog growth are two other concerns Valley Partner members want to see addressed. Unplanned rural subdivisions do neither environmental impact studies nor community impact studies and rarely pay for necessary services like, schools, streets and sewers. “Those wildcat guys go out and throw up trailers in the desert. No streets, no planning, no nothing,” says Spitzer. “If we just have unplanned growth that is chaotic, it will strangle the community.”

Noncontiguous properties pose a problem, in part because the cost for those services fall on existing residents, says Spitzer. By stemming this type of urban sprawl and planning commercial clusters within new developments, Spitzer believes traffic congestion will also be alleviated. “People can live five minutes from where they work, instead of having to drive to downtown Phoenix and making Interstate 17 a parking lot.”

One of Valley Forward’s biggest concerns is the preservation of open spaces. To that end, its 450-some corporate members have thrown their weight behind the new growth management initiatives that were recently approved by the Arizona State Legislature, which go variously by the names Growing Smarter “Two,” “Plus”or “2000.”

Their support is needed because about 5% of the proposal requires that Arizona’s constitution be amended to implement some of the State Land Department Reforms–a proposition that will be on the ballot this November, says Steven Betts, a Valley Partner member and attorney at law for Gallagher & Kennedy. Finalizing the resolutions will take an act of Congress.

The voters will also be asked to approve the formation of the Arizona Conservation Reserve, which allows the state of Arizona to set aside up to 3% of specially selected State Trust Lands for conservation. This will mean about 275,000 acres of land will be preserved, although Johnson indicated that Valley Partnership members thought the cap was a little low. About 70,000 acres have been earmarked already, including nearly 10,500 acres of prime land adjacent to the Petrified Forest, and will also be voted on by the public.

Politicians are thumping their chests about the legislation, perhaps in response to overwhelming public support in Arizona to set aside state trust land as open space. “For the first time, we have a plan to save Arizona’s best landmarks forever,” Governor Jane Hull noted. “It also will give cities and counties tough tools to curb sprawl. I believe this is one of the most important proposals I’ve worked on during twenty years of state government.”

A related proposal, the Citizens Growth Management Initiative, will also be going on the ballot in November. Being proposed by Citizens for Growth Management, the Sierra Club and about 30 other groups around the state, this initiative addresses statutory change at the state level. Proponents of this proposal say that the original Growing Smarter Package passed recently does not have enough teeth, weakens community based support and allows developers too much leverage, says Renee Guillory, campaign coordinator for Citizens for Growth Management.

“These are voluntary provisions that are meaningless, there’s no enforcement. Cities can already have voluntary service boundaries. Secondly, there is an ambiguity issue over impact fees, Growing Smart Plus will not require that growth pays for itself, and we think that is important,” says Guillory. “Thirdly, they have a bogus voter control provision, which only applies to general plans, and this is a really critical thing. Growing Smarter Plus only reinstates the same old general plan process that we currently have right now . . .it requires some cities to do votes on general plans every ten years. But in the meantime, the plans can be changed and don’t have to have public review before they are changed. This doesn’t even include county planning, and that’s a huge oversight.”

Both Citizens for Growth Management and Valley Partnership agree that wildcat subdivisions in the county level need to be reined in because they present serious public health problems and pit property owners against each other.

Because the Citizens Growth Management Initiative requires cities to draw up strict growth boundaries and requires that all changes in growth management plans be put to the ballot, some critics fear it could hamper economic development. Some, like Marc Spitzer, imagine a worst-case scenario, where local control is usurped by outside lobbying. “Anybody can sue over any development anywhere for any reason—you don’t have to live in Arizona, you don’t even have to live in this country, you can live in Mars,” says Spitzer. Guillory countered Spitzer’s accusations about frivolous lawsuits by pointing out that, under law tradition, anyone who is not effected by an issue is not likely to have their case heard.

Growth management issues have been contentious in Arizona and all parties involved admit that the issues are complicated. Despite Growing Smarter Plus’s warts, Betts–who is a land-use lawyer in the area of state and governmental regulation of land use and development projects—still believes this package works for everyone.

“I think Growing Smarter Plus is an excellent compromise and I believe the state needed a well-balanced package to both conserve meaningful open space areas and plan growth better in order to sustain our economy,” he says. “Although I have worked with development industries the last 20 years, I am realistic enough to believe that we couldn’t continue on the way we had been in the seventies and eighties. And we need to be more thoughtful about our built environment and the legacy we are going to leave behind.”

“Lines in the Sand: Future Growth at Turning Point” appeared in  the October/November 1999 issue of Arizona Business Magazine.