Airport Zone Change Struggle Nears Its End

Owners of 222-acre land exchange push for zone change



Map courtesy of Verde Engineering

This map shows the zoning for the 222-acre Montezuma Castle Land Exchange property. Brown is residential, yellow is apartments, red is commercial, gray is light industrial, green is open space and drainage. Most of the controversy so far has centered on the plan to extend Sherwood Drive (the narrower road in the center on the right) and Wagon Trail (running along the bottom of the map).

Winston Churchill said it best: Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Of course, he was talking about a key battle in World War II.

But he might have been talking about the impending rezoning of some 220 acres of land near the Payson Airport — finally nearing a crucial stage after 16 years of effort by frustrated investors.

The rezoning request is no Battle of Britain — but on the other hand, the effort to develop the property will probably take three times as long to fight out as World War II.

Investors have died, withdrawn and gone under along the way, but the determined survivors hope that a zone change, creation of an improvement district, construction of $6 million worth of streets, sewers and water and power lines will finally enable them to sell their holdings.

The locally-owned Verde Engineering Group has come up with a set of maps for the 222 acres, known at the Montezuma Castle Land Exchange — named for the land the investors bought and traded to the Forest Service.

The area will include 73 acres zoned for industrial uses, which makes the area one of the few places in town for new, light-industrial development.

However, the land adjoins several existing single-home neighborhoods plus the 120 acres of residential zoning within the 220 acres. That includes some of the largest parcels designated for high-density residential — like apartments.

Mingling an airport, industrial zoning, apartment zoning, single-family neighborhoods and even rural one-acre parcels in a relatively compact area posed challenges in drawing up the maps and buffering one use from another.

“It’s going to be a challenge. But then, we’ve been doing this for 20 years and they’ve all been challenges,” said Ralph Bossert, who with partner Dan Fitzpatrick started Verde Engineering Group after leaving Tetra Tech.

The plan to turn the plateau surrounding the Payson Airport into some of the most intensive land use areas in town has drawn only modest public interest.

In the earlier hearings to approve the general plan amendment with broad land use designations, most of the opposition to the plan came from people living along Sherwood Drive, which would be extended to link up with Airport Road. Residents at the base of the hill feared people trying to reach the businesses and homes on top of the hill would cut through their neighborhood.

Despite those objections, the town council approved the general plan amendment while advising homeowners that the extension of Sherwood and Wagon Trail would be included — or deleted — from future plans.

The zone change proposal now ready to go back before the planning and zoning commission on June 14 and the town council on July 15 still includes the extension of Sherwood and Wagon Trail. The developers shifted the alignment to the west and included a traffic circle to slow traffic.

Through a series of meetings with people from the neighborhoods, the landowners made the argument the extended streets will provide access to maybe a dozen lots and an emergency outlet for the existing Sherwood Drive neighborhoods, but won’t draw much through traffic. Anyone who wanted to reach the apartments, single family homes and businesses on the mesa top would probably use Airport Drive and North Vista Road, rather than winding down the hillside through a residential area.

None of the Sherwood Drive homeowners who had previously protested the proposal came to the recent town council meeting to discuss the zone change request. At that meeting, the landowners decided to seek a conventional zone change request for each parcel, rather than using a more flexible, planned unit development approach.

Bossert said the landowners decided to go for a more conventional zone change request after they realized they wanted to sell off the land, without locking in the future landowners to some grand master plan.

So instead, Verde Engineering has drawn up a $40,000 plan that runs to about 30 pages plus maps. Although the plan shows streets and lots, it’s really just a way to help the planning commission, council and residents to envision the possibilities. If the planning commission and council approve the zone change, it will determine land use and maximum densities, but all of the detailed street and lot layouts would await a specific plan drawn up by whoever buys the land and wants to build something.

The landowners must first win the zone change, then fund the improvements — about $6 million worth of streets and utilities.

The landowners hope to form a public improvement district, which can then issue low-interest-rate, long-term bonds — which will actually raise the money to install the streets, water, sewer and power lines.

That infrastructure cost will also have to include a drainage system, which poses special problems in the hilly terrain of the mesa top, and the steeply sloped sides.

The town’s storm drainage ordinance requires developers to design their projects to detain on site 120 percent of the water that runs across the property in a peak storm. That means, landowners must not only keep their project from sending rain that falls on their property sloshing onto neighboring property, but must trap a portion of the water that runs across the property from elsewhere.

That will require a system of channels and detention basins. That will pose some special problems on some of the slopes — like the large lots above the extended Sherwood Drive.


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