By Jason Stone, INDEPENDENT NEWSMEDIA
To Surprise City Councilman Patrick Duffy, voting to annex 1,180 acres of county land and rezone it for two major housing developments was an obvious choice.
“The developments will happen,” Mr. Duffy said on June 18 as the city council weighed one of its most consequential votes of the year. “The residents are asking us to take care of them. Under the circumstances, this is the best way to do it.”
Surprise Mayor Skip Hall and the five other councilmembers agreed with Mr. Duffy and voted to unanimously grow the city by nearly two square miles, despite continued protests by some vocal nearby residents.
The council paved the way for the Marisol Ranch and Lone Mountain Ranch housing developments, which will one day change the face of the open desert in the northern part of Surprise along 163rd Avenue.
When all that will actually happen is still a question, but it was clear the council’s vote likely pushed Surprise’s city core even further into the desert.
A group of nearby residents who are fighting developments north of Jomax Road said the battle isn’t over in spite of the council votes to annex the land and rezone it.
“We’re voting all of you out,” one woman screamed toward the council as she exited its chambers after the final vote was announced.
In the re-zone
The council approved rezoning for up to 2,270 units for Marisol Ranch, which was about 21% more than what was previously allowed. It increased the density per acre from 2.97 units to 3.58 units.
Tim Keenan, who is leading Montage Holdings in developing Marisol Ranch, said that’s still less than the planned communities of Surprise Farms and Peoria’s nearby Vistancia, which has similar terrain to what they’ll be working with for Marisol Ranch.
If there’s any silver lining for upset residents it’s this: A long permitting and engineering process — plus any possibly legal action they may take — means Marisol Ranch homes won’t be going up anytime soon.
And Lone Mountain Ranch could be a decade away.
The first Marisol homes might not start going up for more than three years once Montage wraps up its final engineering studies and secures permits for the first phase.
Once that’s done, Mr. Keenan said expect about 200 homes a year to be built.
“I’m seeing this as a 10-year development,” Mr. Keenan said.
It includes plans for a new school in the Nadaburg School District, which Mr. Keenan said has already been set aside.
The Lone Mountain development, which is right to the south of Marisol, will take years longer to get going.
It’s currently consists of mostly of state trust land, which means it won’t be sold until it’s at its highest value. Mr. Keenan estimated that Marisol will likely be 75% built out before the state sells the land for a development there.
The city was forced to annex it now, however, because it needed a contiguous border in order to annex the Marisol portion of the land.
Road to go
The building of homes in Marisol is also facing one other roadblock — literally.
As part of the pre-annexation deal the council passed last month, Montage is responsible to build its half of parkway improvements on 163rd Avenue prior to receiving the first house permit to build any homes.
City Planner Robert Kuhfuss said that means developers must first lay down three lanes of blacktop and half of a median.
“That’s a heavy lift for those guys,” Kuhfuss said. “But per the predevelopment agreement that’s what they’re required to do.”
As part of the development plan, Lone Mountain Road will be extended about a half-mile with the first phase of the project. Currently, there is about a two-mile gap between Surprise and where Lone Mountain ends in Peoria at Vistancia.
Martin Lucero, the city’s transportation director, said Peoria has plans to extend its portion of Lone Mountain, which ends right at state trust land, but it’s a low priority for the city.
Mr. Hall wondered out loud if the approval of the Marisol and Lone Mountain projects would help move it up Peoria’s priority list. After all, the mayor said, 4,000 homes will need additional ways in and out of the area.
That’s especially important to Surprise since 163rd Avenue at Grand Avenue is already a nightmare for current residents thanks to frequent train stops.
Transportation problems weren’t the main concern of the residents who are fighting against the projects. Water seemed to be the biggest worry heading into the council’s crucial vote last week.
“Shame of you,” frequent critic Jacqueline Carroll told the council. “You’re voting carte blanche without asking for any studies or reports beforehand. It’s insane.”
Mr. Keenan said hydrology studies were conducted by Clear Creek and Associates, which show a healthy water table in the aquifers at the area. He said a well was first drilled in 2000 at more than 500 feet and re-tested in 2015 at 600 gallons per minute around 350 feet down.
“We may have to drill another well or two up there to satisfy the entire development,” Mr. Keenan said, adding the aquifer in the area is at about 300 feet down.
Deputy City Manager Terry Lowe said state laws are in place to protect current property owners’ wells in case the new development affects their wells.
“If they do, something has to happen,” Mr. Lowe said. “Either the well production has to go down, the well has to move, or a waiver comes from the existing well owner to allow that to occur with some other offset.”
Ms. Carroll said a coalition of residents has retained legal counsel for the matter, and she plans to fight it for years to come.
She has collected 1,600 signatures, which she frequently mentions to the council, but that isn’t impressing at least one former councilmember.
Doc Sullivan argued in favor of the annexation, telling the Council the signatures Ms. Carroll’s group had collected shouldn’t be valid since some of them are from people from out of state.
“I appreciate all the people who are concerned about this who live out there,” Mr. Sullivan said. “But it’s going to happen. Do you want the city of Surprise to have some leverage on what’s going on up there, or do you want the county to do it?”