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The Saga of Seven Ranches
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Driving east on Honeycutt toward Tortosa, it’s easy to know when you are in the Seven Ranches area of Maricopa. Past the more developed Glennwilde subdivision at Porter, Honeycutt takes an awkward shift and the southeast corner of the intersection seems to be in the line of travel. though it is on an elevated plane, there is no concrete barrier or sidewalk around the traffic signal. It looks vulnerable to damage, or in the least, some confusion as to whether drivers should make a lane change. For drivers coming north on Porter, there is evidence cars leave the asphalt road to make a right-hand turn through dirt, before getting back onto Honeycutt.
The north side of Honeycutt has a sidewalk, drains, and street lights -- while the development on the south side looks like an unfinished quilt. All along the road going toward White and Parker there is a hodgepodge of new buildings, like the Post Office distribution center, the Arizona Storage Company, and the more recent Sequoia Pathway Academy. Each building seems to have a paved access road and, in some instances, like the storage complex on Gunsmoke Road, the asphalt comes to an end and you hit dirt -- like the majority of the area.
Since the incorporation of the city of Maricopa in 2003, Seven Ranches has been a source of contention and hope. It was originally zoned by Pinal County with combination of a multitude of land parcels. In the commercially zoned portion, the area was hoped to be developed by major retailers for a growing city. It was used as a selling point to prospective residents as the future core of Maricopa. Down the road on White and Parker, is the future City Hall. In existence is nearby Pacana Park, Walmart, Banner Medical Center, and the Central Arizona College Campus currently in construction.
“Once we became a city, several people early on went in, bought several portions in hopes of selling that to somebody for commercial use,” said Brent Billingsley, development services director for the City of Maricopa. “I know at one point, lots were being assembled by one person out there in an attempt to make a run at a Walmart. They were lots bought with the intent to bring in a Circle K.”
A majority of commercial property is owned by a development firm, M.A. Maricopa, headed up by Steven Northroup. M.A. Maricopa is currently entangled in lawsuits with the City of Maricopa over land agreements and construction delays. Neither the City of Maricopa nor M.A. Maricopa is able to comment on the lawsuit or the history that drove them to a legal battle. Northroup did say he would “love to comment” once all the liability has been cleared.
Obviously, the downturn in the economy is one component that effected the development. However, there are multiple moving parts such as water distribution and sewage; flood control has also impacted development, as water drainage has to be engineered. Another component is a broken bond between the developers and the city, with much of it revolving around M.A. Maricopa. Then there are rumored understandings among the landowners that the city was to provide the needed infrastructure to enhance the area -- which would provide the driving incentive to develop what is disputed as a “common area.”
For every proposed development, a landowner would be required to provide a “half-street improvement” for their property, which would consist of connecting asphalt to asphalt, sidewalk, and curbs. If a property is centrally located within Seven Ranches, the feasibility and practicality to develop hasn't been there.
“We've had applicants come in, along whether it be Gunsmoke (Road) or Whisker (Road) and the fact there is no right-of-way, and they want to use a parcel that is one, two, three, four, five back, and we have to have that connect pavement to pavement and there is no right-of-way. That has been difficult, their own issue, with choosing a lot way back,” said Chris Salas, transportation manager for the City of Maricopa.
As it stands, all land owners of the 280-acres pay a property tax like anyone else, however, since much of the area is still rural, what they are provided is different from the paved, street swept roads of the residential subdivisions. They receive a once a month “courtesy” road compaction service by the city. Most notably different, is that there are multiple landowners with different designated usages -- whereas when the subdivisions were being developed, they were owned and developed by a single entity. This provides for different perspectives on overall development and hinders a cohesive plan with all the landowners.
“Seven Ranches was very unique to the city with a lot of smaller, individual properties,” said former Councilmember Joe Estes, who served from 2006-2007. He also represented M.A. Maricopa and is familiar with the struggles of the Seven Ranches area. It is Estes’ opinion that what he had seen during his time in Maricopa was that the building department wasn't established enough with either personnel or experience -- and claims that it was primarily suited for master planning development.
He goes on to discuss the difficulty of water distribution, sewage, and drainage plans. Its own Seven Ranches Water District provided water for the area. It is now under the operation of the Maricopa Water Improvement District, while a main sewage line doesn't exist. Estes saw it from a developer's standpoint that if a commercial parcel within Seven Ranches was required to have those services -- the requirements of obtaining a study and engineered plans was cumbersome, especially when considering that the neighboring parcels would have to obtain the same, yet a separate, study. Each individual parcel has to either use septic or install a pipeline and tie into Global Water's system on the outer boundaries of the Seven Ranches area.
Since each parcel is more or less an island unto itself, it is unable to tie in to another parcel's drainage system. A visible example of this inability can be seen behind the eastern portion of the Glennwilde subdivision where a canal was constructed to handle only the storm water from the Glennwilde neighborhood. This drainage ditch runs parallel to Seven Ranches' Whisker Road and then turns to run parallel to an access road alongside Sequoia Pathway. Without survey records, it is difficult to determine whether the access road has a new grade to it. It appears to be level with the rim of the ditch. In some places, it appears to be slightly sloped toward the ditch, which would mean Seven Ranches rainwater does indeed flow into the Glennwilde drainage system. Whisker Road is graded such that the rainwater will flow back into the properties of Seven Ranches.
Even though the city is responsible for the compaction of the dirt roads within Seven Ranches, Salas admits common sense solution would have the road sloped toward the canal. But legally, the city is unable to change the slope of the road since it was another condition inherited from the county. There would need to be another study to how it would affect the canal's ability to handle the storm water from that area of Seven Ranches.
“You don't want to change drainage patterns because then you wash out people's homes and you end up getting sued for those,” Salas said.
In regard to the relationships between the City and Seven Ranches developers, Estes said during that period of booming growth, it was his opinion, “It wasn't a very friendly atmosphere for developers.” He said there were “some conflicting personalities,” but that it wasn't uncommon for any particular city. He goes on to say there are “subtle ways” in which a city employee can make it difficult for a prospective development project.
Estes would not speak of any specific individual or instance, but in one of the lawsuits between M.A. Maricopa and the City of Maricopa, the lawsuit names former city employees Eric Fitzer and Amy Haberbosch. Fitzer served as City Planner under Haberbosch, who was the Planning Director. Fitzer is cited in the lawsuit for having “expressed his personal contempt” toward the particular project, and the participation of “one or more of M.A. Maricopa's employees.” It goes on to say the City systematically delayed the construction project by changing specifications and requirements.
In terms of the city's capital improvement plans and any proposed Seven Ranches infrastructure, budgets since 2008 have only allotted for installation of traffic signals for the White and Parker and Porter intersections of Honeycutt Road. The intersections were budgeted between $350,000 and $500,000 and were paid through the Developmental Impact Fees the city collects for both residential and commercial construction.
Estes said during his time as a representative for M.A. Maricopa or as a member of city council, he could not verify whether there was ever dedicated funding to build infrastructure within Seven Ranches. Both Brent Billingsley and Salas said that since they started with the city, respectively in 2005 and 2007, they are not aware of a funding line for infrastructure within Seven Ranches.
“I don't think any of the streets, since they are not in the public's right-of-way, was ever included in the original D.I.F. study,” said Billingsley. “It is clearly not in our most recent D.I.F study.”
Salas adds that legally, a fee set aside for Seven Ranches infrastructure wouldn't be upheld since there's “not a regional route of any type.”
A request to review the budgets and the capital improvement plans since the city was incorporated was not able to be answered prior to print. The budgets posted online only go back to 2008, when it was changed to its current format.
Billingsley noted the city has applied for grants this year to pave Gunsmoke, but even if it is received, it would also be contingent upon all the property owners to donate their right-of-way. There are improvements on Honeycutt Road slated for this coming fiscal year and the intersection will be widened as originally planned during the installation of the southeast traffic signal that appears to be misaligned. However, in terms of priority, Billingsley refers back to City Council.
“We just make the recommendations,” Billingsley said. “All the requests go to the council members and they decide what goes in (the capital improvement) plan, not us. They decide what projects are in, and they certainly decide what projects are for them.”
The city, council members, and its subcommittees have held numerous public meetings over the years with the Seven Ranches community, and most recently included in the conversation was the American Planning Association and their volunteer team. Billingsley said their report is anticipated for July.
Newly elected councilmember Leon Potter attended one of the initial meetings between the volunteer planning team, city council, and Maricopa's planning and zoning commission.
“I'm looking forward to see what the consultant group is going to present,” said Potter. “I thought some good ideas were brought forward.”
Potter's only reservation about the meeting is that he did not hear more from individual citizens.
“Before I would make a final conclusion on the area, I would like to hear more from the residents,” Potter said. “I think it’s important to hear what they have to say and overall I would like to see a greater collaboration between the stakeholders and the city -- I want the development of the area to be good for the entire community as a whole.”
Holding a similar view on collaboration is Councilmember Bridger Kimball, who was also sworn into city council with Potter on June 5, 2012.
“Given an interest to the area by an outside party with services, entertainment, or anything to promote economic development that would be beneficial to not only the resident, but a majority of citizens in Seven Ranches -- I would potentially be in support of city participation for infrastructure projects,” said Kimball.
In addition to the potential economic development, adversely, the city may have to contend with its own challenge: the Environmental Protection Agency has recently come out with a report citing western Pinal County to be in violation of its coarse-dust standard and Maricopa is included among a list of cities. At any given moment, a dust devil can be seen swirling within Seven Ranches and the area may be subject to monitoring as dust levels throughout the county must be brought into compliance by the end of 2018. Currently, a plan is being devised at state level. More infrastructure may become a necessity, but whether Maricopa will be mandated to cover the costs, or whether it is covered in a state- or county-wide plan, it is unknown at this time.
“One of the solutions that could make a big dent is paving the roads,” said Heather Murphy, Pinal County communications director. “We have to face the prospect of having to implement a state plan. It will be the challenge of state and local leaders to come up with something that is not overly burdensome.”
In the end, Estes expressed a confidence in City Manager Brenda Fischer and believed she is moving the city in the right direction. He understands the difficulties for a city staff to maintain long-term development plans with a council that experiences elections every two years and that has seen multiple shake-ups in city management. As a former councilmember, he noted the patience required to move through the bureaucracy and dealing with the word “study.”
“There's been growing pains and frustrations,” Estes said. “The downturn economy helped the city catch its breath -- but the previous mentality of a city employee has to be completely changed from 'this is what you have to do,’ to ‘what can I do to help you, the developer.’”
John Stapleton / CopaNews.com
Dirt roads and dust are not the only problems Seven Ranches has.