Contrasting views of Payson's "smart growth" limit on new building permits has emerged as a key difference in the Payson council race, marked by increasingly pointed clashes between Mayor Bob Edwards and challenger Kenny Evans.
Although style and personality have dominated much of the public debate, the town's two-year-old, 250-units-per-year limit on growth remains an underplayed issue, dividing a three-man ticket headed by Edwards from the other four candidates.
Edwards and the two council candidates he has endorsed -- Tom Loeffler and David Rutter -- have all supported the town's current limit, originally imposed in 2006 to replace a less-flexible restriction designed to keep the town from outstripping its uncertain water supply. The 250-unit-per-year limit, with townhouses and apartments counting as half a unit, replaced a 12-year-old rule that limited all new subdivisions to 20 lots. It remains the only such growth limit in the state, to the knowledge of town officials.
Challenger Kenny Evans, has criticized the set, inflexible restrictions and suggested that a combination of planning carrots and sticks would work far better in ensuring growth that will enhance the community.
Incumbent Councilman John Wilson, running for re-election, has also opposed set growth limits, although he voted to make the current limits permanent in 2007. So have candidates Michael Hughes, a Realtor, and Richard Croy, an affordable housing advocate.
As a result, one of the few predictable outcomes of a win for the Edwards-endorsed candidates would be to reinforce the current restrictions, which haven't had much impact since their adoption, due to a housing slump.
The town issued 105 permits in the past year, less than half the five-year average of 250 housing permits annually. The 145 unused permits will roll over into next year; therefore, the town would have to issue about 400 permits for the growth restrictions to come into effect, said Community Development Director Jerry Owens.
Blue Ridge water
The ground under the growth management debate has shifted, with word that Payson is near agreement with the Salt River Project to secure rights to 3,000-acre feet per year of new water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir.
Once the deal is signed and Payson finds a way to finance a $30 million pipeline, the Blue Ridge water would more than double the town's available supply -- providing enough water to supply the projected build-out population of 36,000, city officials said.
Mayor Edwards has issued a series of increasingly combative political e-mails, insisting that Evans, Hughes and town Realtors are all raising a smoke screen of other issues, but really want to repeal growth limits.
"Kenny and the Board of Realtors are trying to buy this election. We are at a turning point," wrote Edwards, who ran on a ticket with Councilman Ed Blair two years ago.
"Ed Blair and I, with your help, wrestled the town out of the hands of the small group that was running the town and turned it over to the citizens. That group is now back and Kenny is their candidate. If they are able to take control back with untruths and big dollars, I would guess it will remain in their hands for a long time and the chance of managing the growth of Payson will be lost."
In a subsequent interview, Edwards said, "I'm firmly in favor of the Smart Growth to Build Out Plan. It's the best thing that's happened to Payson in quite some time. It healed a lot of wounds. It is also a very workable -- very reasonable plan -- that helps us plan so we don't outrun our water."
Evans says he is running an independent campaign. While Edwards, Loeffler and Rutter have shared the cost of many of their ads, the other candidates have paid the cost of their own, uncoordinated ads.
Fees are burden on new homeowner
Evans cited one study by the Heritage Foundation, suggesting that government fees and zoning restrictions increase the cost of a single-family house in Arizona by $75,000. Payson imposes various fees totaling about $15,000 per unit on new construction, including a recently doubled water development fee of about $7,500 per unit and a roughly $5,400 per unit sewage fee.
"The ‘smart growth' concept does not work," said Evans. Imposing growth restrictions that limit construction during booms and make no difference during lulls is like driving a car through hilly country by stomping on the brake going up the hill and accelerating on the downhill. Instead, he advocated a more sophisticated use of economic incentives to bring about "orderly growth."
The town's current growth restrictions came at the end of a long and conflict-ridden process. Previously, Payson had limited subdivisions to 20 lots, mostly as a way to slow new growth until the town could secure an adequate water supply, said Owens. That restriction lasted from roughly 1994 to 2006. Larger subdivisions had to bring in water from outside the town limits to win approval.
One such large developer triggered a political upheaval by drilling the Tower Well in Star Valley, which provided enough water for about 1,000 homes. This spurred the incorporation of Star Valley and played a role in Edwards' 2006 campaign.
Once elected, Edwards proposed a 17-point growth control plan, which led to the imposition of the 250-unit-per-year limit, which actually gave developers more flexibility than the old subdivision limit.
Even the candidates critical of the strict growth restrictions have downplayed that issue in campaign advertisements. Much of the public debate has focused on issues like the extension of Mud Springs Road, Mayor Edwards' governing style, high propane bills and whether town funds should support private projects like a new convention hotel or a proposed YMCA recreational complex.
The contrasting approaches to growth restrictions emerged as a result of candidate interviews and Edwards' recent newsletter political blasts.
"I frankly haven't been able to figure out what (Evans') issues are -- but clearly they are opposed to keeping that 250-unit limit in place and that would be very wrong for Payson," said Edwards.
Evans said he has refused all endorsements from any special interests groups.
"I don't represent any groups and have refused all endorsements -- because of the perception that somehow you're selling your soul to get that endorsement."
He said that Edwards' aggressive style and polarizing attacks on the integrity and motivations of people who disagree with him have become a campaign issue.
"My style is to go to people and work things out. But the mayor has a low flashpoint. Being passionate is different from being angry. His attitude is to see the world as black or white -- he doesn't see a third option and that third option is usually a better way."
But Edwards says Evans started the attacks.
"Kenny continues his rumor attacks, stating that I attack the integrity of those who disagree with me. This may sound good politically, but is, in fact, not true. I have invited many who oppose my views to serve on task forces and bring their ideas forward. His charge would apply to many of the team supporting him, to whom we have reached out."
Who's spending what?
Edwards has also accused Evans of trying to buy the election. Evans admits, so far, to raising two or three times as much money as Edwards admits to.
Evans said he has raised $15,000 to $20,000 and loaned his campaign $7,000, but has spent only about half of his cash on hand. He said most of his money has come from the 500 people who have made small contributions, with about 100 people contributing in the $100 to $370-maximum range. He said he didn't know who among his contributors might be real estate developers, but they were a very small percentage of contributors.
By contrast, Edwards says he has raised about $8,000 so far.
Evans said he has stepped up spending in recent weeks to respond to Edwards' attacks.
"Our campaign will respond as they level these vicious attacks. They say we started the war, but I will sit down and try to do issues and he doesn't want to do that."
Edwards said, "(Evans') campaign has had no real issues, so they're running a rumor campaign. The last campaign we didn't respond to the rumors, this time we are."