The owners of the biggest undeveloped, privately-owned chunk of land in Payson want to change the town’s general plan to allow for a mix of apartments, houses and light industry, much of it on hillsides overlooking the town.
The plan for 220 acres recently exchanged with the U.S. Forest Service around the Payson Airport would not only provide a key area for small manufacturing firms, but would put a block of land for apartments next to existing subdivisions, scatter new homes across steep slopes and extend several quiet residential streets.
Neighbors living at the base of the hill have already lodged protests about the sweeping general plan shift that will play a key role in the town’s economic future. They object to the hillside hillside construction and to the plan to extend several local roads to connect to Airport Road at the top of the hill.
The proposed plan for the area would require the extension of Sherwood Drive, Wagon Trail, Dillon Way, Vista Road and Green Valley Parkway — in addition to straightening Airport Road and shifting it about 200 feet.
Overall, the plan would pave the way for developments that would turn a high rocky ridge and the pinyon juniper forest on the mesa top that harbors the airport into the largest area in town for light industry and apartment dwellers.
Second public meeting planned
Ray Jones, the former head of the county planning commission who has spent nearly two decades bundling up private lands for exchange with the federal government, has already held one public meeting on the plan. Another public meeting will take place on Oct. 2 at Tiny’s Restaurant.
The plan will probably go to the Payson Planning Commission for the first time in November and then on to the town council in December or January. So far, no developers have announced plans to actually build anything in the land trade area.
However, the Payson Planning Commission has already approved the realignment of Airport Road and the Payson Town Council recently approved the first step in its plan to purchase 13 acres of the exchanged land for businesses connected to the airport.
Most of Payson is built on land exchanged with the U.S. Forest Service in the past century. The most recent 220-acre swap with the Forest Service started out as a 1,400-acre exchange. That original land trade would have squared off the town with a swath of developable land wrapping around the western side of town from the casino to the airport.
A group specializing in accumulating land for trade had bought up 5,000 to 7,000 acres across the west to trade. However, a series of land-trade scandals in Nevada and changes in the people doing the lobbying ultimately resulted in the shrunken 220-acre exchange, plus a smaller piece of land acquired by Tonto Apache Tribe.
“The whole business of land trades took a pretty big hit,” due to scandals involving collusion between realtors, developers and federal employees in Nevada, said Jones.
Land trades got another dose of bad publicity with the recent indictment of Congressmen Rick Renzi, a Flagstaff-based Republican who represented Rim Country. He allegedly tried to push through a land swap that would benefit a business partner.
“That didn’t help,” said Jones of a shift away from federal land trades that could mean it will be years before Payson benefits from another such major land swap.
Still, the 220 acres left in the most recent trade represents the largest chunk of land in the town for future development, including an area where the town could develop the kinds of high-tech, light manufacturing projects adjacent to the airport that could generate future jobs.
Neighbors protesting land plan
However, neighbors have already protested the plan to extend key roads and designate land for apartments.
“Right now all homes here are build on acre + size lots and the Tonto National Forest adjacent to our properties insures us privacy and tranquility. This privacy will no longer be there if this many new homes are developed in this area,” wrote Ed Urbanski, who has a home in the Manzanita Hills subdivision.
Paul Chow objected to any zoning that would provide apartments and industrial development.
“I say no, no way, absolutely not to the 222-acre land exchange. The idea of more traffic, major roads, commercial/industrial buildings, apartments, condos and high-density development at our back door would be a nightmare.”
Donald Evans objected to extending Sherwood Drive to make it a collector street connecting to Airport Road. “Making West Sherwood Drive a ‘collector’ street serves no purpose, impairs safe access to driveways and pedestrians, creates loud traffic noise, negatively impacts our quality of life, and reduces our property values.”
Johnie and Don Duggan also focused on road concerns in their letter to the town, especially on what would be a steep Sherwood Drive.
“The same steep hill on Airport that presently causes a traffic worry of being able to stop in case of emergency, or even at a stop sign, will be exaggerated on the descent of Sherwood, except this route is into a residential area, with school children, school buses, and many driveways that are not clearly visible.”
Many of the elements of the plan that have spurred opposition so far apply equally to the current general plan, which calls for the extension of most of the same streets and a similar mix of industrial, high density and low-density residential.
The real change from the status quo lies between the existing zoning and the general plan designations — whether it’s the existing plan or the plan proposed by the owners of the newly exchanged land.
Currently, almost the entire area around the airport is actually zoned for ranches – one house for every four acres. That’s the zoning the county placed on it and that the town adopted when it annexed the area.
A recent referendum made it much harder for government to change the zoning on land, without paying landowners for any potential decrease in the value of their property. Those restrictions take place based on the zoning, not the general plan designation. Therefore, even a change in the general plan would not necessarily give the landowners a legal right to a certain zoning until the next stage — an actual change in the underlying zoning.
Several years ago, Payson adopted a new general plan that slated most of the territory then owned by the Forest Service for industrial development. The 220 acres included 78 acres for “employment” – which is industrial and commercial zoning. It also includes 61 acres of “mixed use”for master planned development, 17 acres for open space, 34 acres for low density residential, and 30 acres for street right of ways.
The landowners want a more fine-grained plan that would provide a mixture of industrial and residential zoning, with a big chunk of zoning for apartments.
The new plan would decrease the amount of industrial zoning by half and reduces the open space allocation from 18 acres to 6 acres. The low-density residential (1-2.5 units/acre) would drop by nearly half, to 35 acres.
On the other hand, the amount of medium density residential (2..5-5.5 units/acre) would increase nearly four-fold to 72 acres and the amount of high density (6-18 units/acre) residential would more than double to 26 acres The new plan would eliminate the existing 6 acres of commercial land.