Planners Pan Airport Change

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Heeding dire financial warnings and homeowner pleas, the Payson Planning Commission Monday put off voting on a proposed general plan amendment involving 220 acres near the airport.

Ray Jones, representing land owners involved in the land exchanged recently with the Forest Service, came seeking a change in the existing general plan that would reduce the amount of industrial zoning by nearly a quarter — converting the industrial and commercial designation to residential.

When it became clear the commission would reject the plan if forced to a vote, Jones agreed to hammer out a new plan in the next week. The commission scheduled a meeting for 3 p.m., Monday, Nov. 17 at Town Hall.

Perhaps the decisive testimony in the three-hour meeting came from Ken Volz, director of the Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation, who objected forcefully to the proposed reduction in land designated for industrial development.

He said the town’s future economic health depends critically on leaving as much land for industrial parks as possible. The current general plan designates about 87 acres for commercial or light industrial development. The proposed amendment would reduce that total to about 57 acres.

Volz said the town has only half an acre of undeveloped, light-industrial land.

“I don’t think there’s any one single event that will have as much impact on the future of this town as the development of 220 acres of contiguous property where you can develop new (light industrial) businesses,” he said.

Ironically, all the other testimony at the long meeting focused on an issue not actually at hand — whether to extend Sherwood and Wagon Trail to connect to Airport Road. Almost all of the standing-room-only crowd of about 70 homeowners opposed the extensions included in the current general plan.

“We’re not here to oppose the general plan amendment out of hand,” said Allan Schwartz, “but these changes will literally destroy our neighborhood in short order.”

The proposed amendment would devote most of the 220 acres to residential development, with about one quarter to commercial and light industrial development. The general plan serves as a blueprint for future development, with the crucial details settled in the zoning.

Currently, most of the area retains the zoning it had when the Forest Service owned it — one house for every four acres. The general plan change would just clear the way for sale or development of the land, with no plans so far submitted to actually build anything or extend the roads. Any such specific proposal would take years to work through the system.

Most of the homeowners focused on the impact of the hypothetical street extensions to the existing quiet neighborhoods with large lots at the base of the hill, where those streets now dead end.

A 1998 traffic study plan on which the 2003 general plan amendment was based concluded the extensions were necessary to prevent the airport area from becoming a giant cul de sac, with built-in traffic jams if Airport Road provided the only way back out to the highway.

Other homeowners also objected to plans to put apartments right next to low-density horse property.

Jones, who helped cobble together the land exchange after 12 years of effort, protested that the road extensions remained a separate issue. He said the road extensions remain up to the town council and planning commission and wasn’t part of his general plan amendment request.

He said the land owners would agree to a low-density buffer strip to protect existing, low-density neighborhoods. He also said the land land owners could shift the proposed open space to provide a buffer for the existing horse property neighborhoods.

However, it remains unclear whether significantly increasing the amount of light industrial development would constitute such a big change that it would require the land owners to start the process all over, said Tim Wright, the assistant town attorney.

That loss of potential industrial land clearly bothered the planning commission, especially since it could result in the construction of apartments near the airport.

“Putting high density apartments at the end of a runway doesn’t make sense to me. We’re almost choking this airport with residential,” said Commissioner Lori Meyers.

Commissioner James Scheidt said “we’re giving too much away. We’re not going to need this high density residential if we don’t have any place for those businesses to build — and we’ve reduced open space as well.”

“As an investor, I can empathize” with the 12-year struggle to win approval of the exchange, said Commissioner Gary Bedsworth. “But I’m not ready to approve this with the current amount of employment” designation.

Commission Chairman Hal Baas agreed. “I’m not ready to give up the employment areas for the future.”

Faced with the prospect of rejection of the whole plan, the land owners agreed to work with the town planning staff to incorporate the objections of the planning commissioners and the neighbor. The commission then voted unanimously to schedule another meeting next Monday at 3 p.m. in the council chambers to consider a new plan worked out by the land owners and the planning staff.

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