Street Improvement Movement Leaves Subdivision At Crossroads

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There are no dimpled chads and the presidency of the United States isn't hanging in the balance, but the Rim country has its own vote counting controversy and Payson Mayor Ray Schum is caught in the crossfire.

A brouhaha over street improvements has split Alpine Heights, the subdivision where the mayor lives, right down the middle. And just like Florida, when the two sides sit down today (Tuesday) for a recount, there's no guarantee a winner will be decided.

The battle over whether to create a local improvement district to re-pave the subdivision's streets, add curbs and correct longstanding drainage problems has been going on for at least a decade.

Alpine Heights, a subdivision of some 250 homes, is located in the northeast part of town, west of Tyler Parkway and Chaparral Pines. If subdivision property owners vote to establish a local improvement district, bonds will be issued to finance the street repairs. The homeowners will pay half the cost about $5,000 a household and the town will pay the other half.

According to opposition leader Bob Carr, Alpine Heights residents rejected moves to form an improvement district in 1993, and again in 1995. Town Manager Rich Underkofler told the council last month that residents of the subdivision have petitioned the town to upgrade "the aging subdivision streets on practically an annual basis."

But Carr thinks the mayor and town council are trying to shove the district down residents' throats, and that their supporters are going about gathering signatures in an unethical manner. He also thinks the mayor has a conflict of interest.

According to Town Attorney Sam Streichman, however, that's not so.

Arizona law stipulates that an elected official must have a monetary interest in an issue to constitute a conflict, he said, and because the mayor and his neighbors would pay the same amount and receive the same benefits, no legal conflict exists.

The latest attempt to form a district heated up when a letter from Underkofler dated Aug. 29 was mailed to all property owners, according to Carr. In that letter, Underkofler said, "It is my understanding that you are canvassing your neighborhood to determine whether a majority of property owners would be willing to accept assessments for 50 percent of the cost for upgrading some of your streets."

The letter also assured residents that the town will "maintain and preserve the pavement after the improvement is completed...." In a subsequent letter to residents, Carr questioned that pledge.

The town promised the same thing back when the subdivision was first established and failed to deliver, Carr said. "The town has a history of refusing to honor its responsibilities," he said. "Why would we believe they would honor them in the future?"

Carr also is upset about the fact that only the northeastern half of Alpine Heights is included in this latest effort to form an improvement district. "They've failed to get a majority in the past," he said, "so this is their latest strategy."

Ted Scholz, an Alpine Heights resident and one of those working to garner support for the improvement district, confirmed the fact that the town agreed to maintain the streets. However, he said, there is nothing conspiratorial about splitting the community in half.

"The western area does not really have the problem with the roads and drainage that those in the other part have, so it made sense to just assess those who have the problem," he said.

The latest effort actually began back in June, Scholz said.

"Several of us decided that since the town was proposing to pay for half of the road improvements, this would be a good opportunity to solve the drainage and road deterioration problems on Alpine Heights Drive. The costs had already escalated since 1993 and it sure wasn't going to get any cheaper."

With the town willing to commit $685,000 to the project, Scholz and a few others, including the mayor, began gathering signatures.

Carr said Schum went door to door, identified himself as the mayor, and twisted arms to get people to support the district.

"He went up and down Easy Street and Farview," he said. "I know because people called me and told me they told him to go away."

Schum, however, said that's not the way he conducted himself.

"That's just untrue," the mayor said. "The only people I told I was mayor were new people who asked me who I was. I told them, and I told them it had no bearing on the improvement district."

The mayor said his interest in forming the district is entirely altruistic.

"What we hope to achieve with Alpine Heights," he said, "is to show other communities in town that don't have rolled curbs and gutters how to do something like this that the town will try and match funds."

Scholz said the district is necessary because the roads were not built correctly by the developer in the first place.

"There are no curbs," he said, "and we need the drainage pipe placed so runoff is directed properly down the hill.

"Instead of crowning the road, the original builder made it V-shaped so the water wouldn't run down the edges of the road and erode property.

Once word leaked out that Scholz and his supporters were gathering signatures in favor of the district, Carr formed the Committee Against (a) Road Improvement District. The group launched its own signature campaign.

During last month's council meeting, where the subject of forming a local improvement district was on the agenda, Underkofler explained that this year's town budget "contains $40,000 for surveying, engineering and legal expenses to launch another proposal for upgrading the streets of Alpine Heights," and that this "smaller" district would only include Camelot, Sunshine Lane, Hillcrest Drive and Alpine Heights Drive.

The town manager also announced the results of Scholz's canvass: "As of Nov. 1, 2000, owners of 73 parcels favored the proposal, 38 were opposed, 29 were undecided."

Not so fast, Carr said. Of 138 landowners in the new smaller district, he said he has 72 signatures opposing its formation and he delivered copies of the signature cards to the Roundup that he said proves it.

Why the discrepancy?

"We were unable to elicit opinions from about 30 of the residents," Scholz said. "Somehow Carr was able to snag almost all of them and get up to about 50 percent.

The other problem, according to Schum, is that seven or eight people signed for both sides. "There are overlapping names," the mayor said.

As a result of the discrepancy, Schum ordered the two sides to sit down and resolve their lists before the council reconsiders the matter in January.

Carr, who was accompanied by a group of supporters, angrily told the council they had been "railroaded" and that the "whole thing is a set-up deal."

Tempers flared briefly before Carr and his supporters were asked to leave.

Carr said he has since repeatedly asked Scholz for a meeting to count their signatures but was rebuffed. Frustrated, he went to Town Hall earlier this month to ask Underkofler to expedite the process, and by Friday, a meeting at Town Hall had been arranged to count and compare signatures from both sides. That recount is tentatively scheduled for 4 p.m. today.

While it takes a simple majority of homeowners to create a local improvement district, the results of the recount won't resolve the matter, Scholz said. "All this initial polling does is tell the council whether the support for a district is there," he said.

"If it is, the town publishes a resolution of intent to form a district and those property owners who disapprove can let the town know. Then it goes to a bonding company and the actual cost is determined." he added.

At that point residents have yet another chance to vote it down. "So there are two more chances to see what the majority wants," Scholz said.

But Carr, who has lived in Alpine Heights for 18 years, is worried that the community won't be able to stand the strain.

"There were only three houses here when I built mine," he said. "As we grew, we would have Christmas parties for all the residents. Now there's nothing," he said. "Now people don't even wave back when you wave at them."

Schum and Scholz said they haven't noticed a change in the neighborhood. "It hasn't affected my relations with my neighbors," Scholz said.

But whatever happens, improvement district opponent Diana Thompson said residents from around Payson should pay close attention.

"It may be your neighborhood next," she said.

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