In light of debates, P&Z commission reviews development code - Sierra Club states that it's best to increase density of housing

Sierra Vista Herald/Review


SIERRA VISTA, AZ-- On Tuesday, the City Council and city staff reminded the Planning and Zoning Commission that the rules it is governed by fall under the development code.

The council and the commission members met in a work session Tuesday to discuss development issues that have come to light during a series of contentious debates recently. The meeting came about because over the last few months city residents protested to the commission and council when Castle & Cooke first wanted to rezone land on the east end of the city and then submitted a preliminary subdivision plat for Canyon de Flores Phase 2.

City Attorney Stu Fauver said that some of the commission's recent decisions, especially one to deny a preliminary plat, could lead to legal problems if the commission uses any other factor than the development code when deciding the issue.

The development code currently does not allow the commission to ask for more parks, open space or a water mitigation plan when a developer asks for a change, but at least one council member said the code needs to change.

When deciding on Castle & Cooke's rezoning request, the commission tabled the item once before voting to recommend approval. The council then sent the item back to the commission for further discussion after asking that the zoning density be decreased. The commission then tabled the request, asking for more information and for such items as parks and water mitigation plans.

When the subdivision plat came before the commission, it voted 3-3 and denied the request. The biggest concern stated was the need for more parks and open space in the plan. Fauver said the city code gives the commission authority to deny plats, but only if they fail to meet the requirements in the code.

"It appeared, based on the reading of the development code, the plat did meet all of the requirements," City Manager Chuck Potucek said at Tuesday's meeting. "All of a sudden we're hearing we need more information or more parks or more open space, but that is not listed within the planning commission's rules. If we were to do this again, we could find ourselves in a situation where we could be legally liable."

Commissioners Mary Watts and Joe Kraps said that when they voted on the item, they had no idea they were making a final decision. They felt that their vote would only serve to recommend the plat to council.

"We were all under the assumption that we were a recommending body and had no legislative power," Watts said.

Fauver said that in every case, except subdivisions, that is true, but his interpretation of the code gives the commission authority to deny, but not approve, subdivision plats.

Councilman Bob Blanchard disagreed.

"The problem I have with the ruling is that the appeals process is that we allow appeals in every other case, but not this one," Blanchard said. "But this isn't an appeal. This was just a recommendation."

With Fauver's legal opinion, the council asked the commission to consider only the five measures in the development code when addressing plats. The measures deal with issues such as does the proposed use fit the land-use plan.

"If there is a finding that it meets those five things and all the things that say shall, that is it," Jones said. "There is nothing else to consider."

Councilman Bob Strain said, "It seems to me that it's fairly cut and dry, either it meets the code or it doesn't."

Watts said the discussion had an impact, at least on her.

"If it comes back as it is, now I will have to vote yes," Watts said. "I thought it was in the code that we should have parks and open space. I'm being told I was wrong and maybe I was."

The council also discussed changing the code to allow for greater flexibility by the city staff and the commission.

"What we need to do is bring the code more into compliance with our vision in VISTA 2010 and VISTA 2020," Jones said.

"If the P&Z thinks the criteria needs to be broadened, expanded or changed, then we need to consider that," Potucek said.

For now, Fauver reminded, the only thing the commission can consider are what is in the development code of the city.

Fauver also said that when rezones come before the commission, they have three responsibilities -- hold a public hearing, make a decision and send a recommendation to council. He said that if the commission is unable to make a decision, then an item can be passed directly to the council without a recommendation.

In the case of the Castle & Cooke rezone, Potucek said the commission was within its rights to ask the developer to completely fill out the rezone application, but may have overstepped its bounds by asking for information on neighborhood parks and water mitigation plans. He said those items are not usually known until the plat stage and there is nothing in the city code requiring the developer release them earlier.

Jones said he would support a change in the code that asked developers to present more detailed plans for the land before granting a rezone.

"Show me a good, creative neighborhood and I'll give you the density to support it," Jones said. "I'm not asking for a minor change. I'm talking about a revolution."

The council also briefed the commission on its water mitigation efforts because water use continues to come up at meetings.

Potucek presented the city's plans and said he found it interesting that the city was able to rezone land less than half a mile from the proposed rezone. That rezone changed the land to multi-family residential and the developer is going to build more than 500 homes on 4,500-square-foot lots. There was little protest to the rezone, he said.

"Now we have one a quarter mile away and it's far less dense and we have all these problems," Potucek said. "The thing that struck me is the talk about water issues and what it would do to Fort Huachuca. I think it's ludicrous to assume that anyone on the council would act in a way that is detrimental to the fort. The reality is the fort is closing some of its housing stock."

In the fort's biological assessment, outside agencies are asked to mitigate approximately 3,600 acre-feet over the next 11 years, Potucek said. The plan includes growth at a rate higher than the city has been growing. The city's water mitigation plan would cover all of the deficit by itself. He also said there are scientific reasons to believe the deficit is even less.

He said that in the biological assessment, the fort counted 5,100 acre-feet of water as being pumped for agricultural use. The number came from a preliminary report sanctioned by the Upper San Pedro Partnership.

The final report is now completed and shows only 2,300 acre-feet being pumped, which would lower the deficit by 2,800 acre-feet.

Even with that, Potucek said the city is still planning to mitigate 3,600 acre-feet so that the fort will have the ability to grow.

"We, the council, said we'd address the 3,600 acre-feet as a minimum," Jones said. "The city will address the 3,599."

Strain said the recent talk about water is off base in a number of areas.

He said environmental groups such as the Sierra Club have publicly stated that it's best to increase density in housing areas because the number of houses alone has no impact on water being pumped.

"The people are trying to relate the density of population to water use of population. They are not related," Strain said. "People is small lots use no more water than people in large lots. Housing does not impact growth. Growth and the market impact housing."

Herald/Review reporter David Rupkalvis can be reached at 458-9440 ext. 180 or by e-mail at


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