By Jason Stone, INDEPENDENT NEWSMEDIA
Surprise’s growing city is starting to move out to its northern deserts.
But if you ask many of the area’s residents who moved there to get away from it all, they aren’t exactly happy about it.
Karen Christopherson and her husband bought a home in the area around 163rd Avenue and Jomax Road about seven years ago just for that reason.
During that time, they’ve dealt with the limitations of living there like the rest of their neighbors.
For starters, there is constant flooding of the roads, which are already too narrow to begin with, or not even fully paved in some areas.
Plus, there are only two ways in and out of the area – on 163rd Avenue to Grand Avenue, and from Jomax to the Loop 303.
Ms. Christopherson said she’s used to staying home when the roads flood. After all, she deals with snow half the year in the couple’s second home in Colorado.
But one thing she thinks won’t work in the area is more housing developments that will only clog up the streets, drain resources, push out wildlife, and generally turn an already messy situation worse.
“I feel really bad for them,” said Mr. Winters, the only City Council member who has so far voted to slow the growth of developments in the area. “The trouble is if the landowner or developer goes through all the proper procedures and follows the rules and regulations, there’s not much you can do about it.”
Frustrations came to a head at the May 7 City Council meeting when angry residents spoke throughout the night on various projects the Council was considering in their area – including approving a pre-annexation deal of 360 acres in the area for future homes.
“The level of development of which developers are trying to accomplish around here is so far beyond and above what the residents want and the reason they live there,” said Jacqueline Carroll, who got up to speak on multiple agenda items. “It’s not good for the city for emergency, traffic, wash floods, water zones, flood zones, water wells. It’s going to decimate a very precious area.”
Added resident Christina Van Arsdale: “We are here to stop the crazy idea of putting a city in a rural area.”
Ms. Carroll also delivered a legal threat to the Council if they continued on its track of approving developments in the area.
“You’re going to listen to us because we are going to fight back, and it starts tonight,” Ms. Carroll told the Council.
Despite the threats, the Council voted to pass the pre-annexation agreement, which only focused on road improvements to 163rd Avenue between Lone Mountain and Dixileta roads.
Despite needing those road improvements, Mr. Winters was the lone dissenting vote on a pair of pre-annexation agreements for the planned Lone Mountain and Marisol Ranch developments.
“My vote ‘no’ was because those people voted for me and they wanted me to represent them at City Hall,” Mr. Winters said. “It had to be a ‘no’ because I had to represent those people. I feel bad for them especially because the roads up there are already bad.”
Destined for development
The problem the City of Surprise finds itself in is development is likely coming to the area they want to annex on the northeast corner of 163rd Avenue and Dixileta Drive no matter what they do.
Marisol 163, LLC, and FGR Property Investments V, LLC, each own portions of the land the city wants to build on, while the State of Arizona currently owns the acreage the city wants to annex.
“So, there are 25,000 houses coming and we can’t really stop it,” said District 6 Councilmember Chris Judd, who serves the southeastern part of the city. “All we can do is brace for impact and hopefully do some planning.”
Even Mayor Skip Hall at the last City Council meeting seemed resigned to the fact that somebody was going to left unhappy no matter what happens.
“We have people with private property rights,” Mr. Hall said. “Right now, they have entitlement and you’ve got to respect that as property owners and the City Council. We can’t just ignore that.”
Mr. Winters calls it a “catch-22.”
On one hand he wants to keep his constituents happy, but on the other hand he knows that the only way some of the road problems in the area will be from developers footing the bill to improve them along with homes they construct.
“If we don’t do any building up there – the construction of homes — those streets are never going to get fixed,” Mr. Winters said. “That’s part of the builder’s obligation.”
Surprise voters in 2017 passed a bond to widen and improve Waddel and Greenway roads. Work for 163rd Avenue isn’t even on the radar for that kind of funding.
At the very least, Mr. Winters said city staff has told him Jomax and 163rd Avenue will be a full-fledged main intersection by the end of the year or beginning of 2020.
Another problem the city is having with those roads is gaining right-of-way access from some property owners in order to widen and pave the troubled area around Dale Lane.
Mr. Winters said some owners have been holding out.
“Public Works Director Mike Gent told me they got the money,” Mr. Winters said. “We just got to get the right of way to get up there and do it.”
The city’s absolute last resort would be using eminent domain.
“There’s always that terrible word, eminent domain,” Mr. Winters said. “We certainly don’t want to do that.”
Bringing in thousands of more homes over the next few years will bring a host of problems, area residents said.
Ms. Christopherson is worried about clearance for emergency vehicles in the area. It’s not uncommon for helicopters to rescue people from the waters in the area, she said.
“Even when the city paved 163rd Avenue further north past Jomax Road, it still goes across washes,” Ms. Christopherson said. “After big rains, the flooding makes it impossible for any cars to get in or out to homes in that area.”
She’s also concerned about building high density homes in an area full of wild animals, including javelinas, owls and wild burros that cross underneath the Central Arizona Project Aqueduct that divides the land the city wants to develop.
Ms. Christopherson has been communicating with the Arizona Game and Fish Department because she believes the CAP Aqueduct is supposed to be designed as a wildlife corridor, which could also be an angle for potential future legal action residents may want to take.
Traffic congestion is also going to be a problem the city will have to contend with as most residents now enter the area off Grand Avenue.
When a train passes by, dozens of cars are left waiting along Grand or on 163rd Avenue.
“We got boxed in because the railroad doesn’t want to add more crossings,” Ms. Christopherson said. “And anything added would have to cross the railroad to get onto U.S. 60.”
Residents seem to be worried crime is getting worse in the area, something they said will only be amplified by more development.
Ms. Christopherson said mail theft, graffiti and small arson has been on the rise in the area, although the city says there hasn’t been a rise in any noticeable crime there.
“I want to know from our police chief [Terry Young] really what is the crime out there?” Mr. Hall asked at the May 7 Council meeting. “Is there is a perceived crime or a real crime? Those are two different things. The numbers I looked at there doesn’t seem to be a lot of crime out there.”
Either way, the residents said they want more of a police presence in the area. Mr. Winters said the addition of officers and firefighters in the fiscal year 2020 budget should help the emergency services there.
“We’ve been trying to get the police’s attention,” Ms. Christopherson said. “It’s pretty far for them to come out here.”
Mr. Winters said he took some heat for his vote to approve the Dollar General store, 17174 W. Jomax Road, because residents wanted something bigger.
“If you get some commercial and their foot in the door, you might have the opportunity to get something bigger,” Mr. Winters said he reasoned about his vote. “But if you don’t have anything, it really discourages commercial to go up there.”
For now it looks like a major supermarket is primed for the area of 163rd Avenue and Pat Tillman Road, which Mr. Winters said he expects to go up in the next year sometime.
“I think they have enough rooftops to get some large grocery store in there now,” Mr. Winters said.
For the formal annexation process, which the City Council initiated in December, the city is currently in the midst of its required 30-day waiting period before a Tuesday, June 4 public hearing.
After the public hearing and the 30-day waiting period has ended, more than 50% of the land owners – as well as more than half of the assessed valuation for all real and personal property located within the annexation area – must sign the petition to extend the process.
The city would then have up to a year to gather signatures to keep the process moving.
The city has also planned another public hearing for Tuesday, June 18 to go over the annexation ordinance as well as any related rezoning cases.
“We’re a long way yet for building,” Mr. Winters said. “Marisol hasn’t been engineered yet. You’re looking at two more years before they’re moving any dirt. I don’t know if that’s any consolation to the people up there.
Definitely not for Ms. Carroll, who passionately told the Council she won’t stop the fight.
“We feel the City, the Planning and Zoning [Commission], and the developers most definitely, they just don’t care,” Ms. Carroll said. “They fight against us. They don’t listen to us. And we live there. And we’re going to still live there.”
Ms. Carroll organized a petition that collected 1,500 signatures of residents in the area.
“The residents feel they’re being railroaded into developments that are not good for this area,” Ms. Carroll said. “And we are being made to feel our voices against these developments are not being adequately heard.
“Make no mistake. We will do what we need to do.”
Mr. Winters said he understands the frustration but thinks it may not matter in the end.
“As for going to court and trying to sue the city, I don’t think that’s going to go very far,” Mr. Winters said.
In the meantime, Mr. Winters said he will continue walking the tightrope between serving what’s best for the city as well as the needs of his constituents.
“I know the developer from Marisol and he does has good intentions,” Mr. Winters said. “But he has a long hard road to hoe to get the confidence from those people up there because they’re not very happy right now.
“And I don’t blame them.”