Airport Land Use Plan Skirts Storm

220-acre change takes off, but road decision deferred

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An intermittently controversial general plan change for 220 acres around the Payson Airport took off without a bump Thursday, gliding past thunderheads of controversy billowing up from proposed road extensions.

About 60 people crowded into the council chambers, the bulk of them opposed to the extension of Sherwood Drive to Airport Road as envisioned in the town’s current general plan.

Acting planning director Ray Erlandsen said the general plan amendment before the council would only establish generally what could be built on the land and that the layout of the streets would be debated later when the landowners seek new zoning. The general plan change represented the first step in a years-long process.

That cleared the way for a quick, unanimous approval of a change in the general plan requested by the people who own the 220 acres swapped by the Forest Service for private land near Montezuma’s Castle National Monument and elsewhere.

The discussion focused almost entirely on the roads. No one asked any questions about the allotment of industrial, high-density and residential designations hashed out in frequent shifts before and after planning commission hearings.

Homeowners near the airport had previously objected to the plan to put apartments and light industry close to existing medium-and low-density residential neighborhoods.

The plan ultimately approved by the planning commission converted a proposed six-acre block of parkland into a narrow buffer strip between existing neighborhoods and the proposed apartment and light industrial land.

The approved plan did preserve a small overlook park, running along Airport Road at the crest of the mesa. The park would provide a place for people to park and look out over Payson.

The landowners’ original plan had reduced the light industrial land from 95 acres to 57 acres. However, Ken Volz, regional economic development director, objected that the land around the airport represented Payson’s last, best chance to lure job-generating businesses like business parks, forest products businesses or Internet companies.

As a result, the landowners agreed to boost the light industrial land back up to about 78 acres — a roughly 17-percent reduction from the current general plan.

The changes provided additional land for apartments in a town short of both apartments and affordable housing.

However, after homeowners objected to a plan that would put apartments across the street from existing single-family neighborhoods, the landowners revised the plan and reduced the apartment zoning from 26 to 14 acres.

Most of the people who spoke on Thursday focused on the extension of Sherwood Drive included in the traffic element of the current general plan.

Dan Kealey, representing the Woodhill Homeowners Association and 370 people who signed petitions opposing the extension, said, “We are not opposed to the land amendment before you. Having said that, hopefully the extension of Sherwood is not set in stone.”

Ray Jones, who helped put together the land swap over the course of nearly a decade, and who now represents the landowners, said that three different blocks of people own the 220 acres. He said that once the council decides on the road alignments, the roads in each block would all be put in at the same time.

“These roads will all be paid for by the owners through an improvement district,” said Jones.

Councilor Michael Hughes said the landowners and the eventual developers should work out something to satisfy the Sherwood Drive homeowners.

“I want to encourage the landowners to work in concert,” said Hughes. “You’ve got overall homeowner support — you should take advantage of that. The people I’ve talked to seem level-headed and reasonable.”

“We’ve bent over backwards to do exactly that,” said Jones, who touched off much of the opposition in early community meetings when he said the road extensions were a “done deal” under the terms of the current general plan.

Jones, a former county planning commissioner, added that he has midwifed land swaps and represented developers for decades in Rim Country.

“When you look up at the podium and see me, you know there’s change coming: So you’d better get geared up, because it’s coming.”

Resident Ed Cameron said, “The Woodhill residents support most of what’s going on, but when it comes to the extension of Sherwood and I hear ‘could, maybe, might try,’ I can’t sit here and not say something. I’m sure the 220 acres will lose not a penny of value if the street doesn’t go through. We want these guys to make their money, just don’t take it out at our expense.”

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