Sunday, September 16, 2012

City Planning Commission draws criticism

The improving economy has prompted an increase in large-scale commercial and residential projects coming before city officials and, with that, criticism of the way the proposals have been handled.

A growing area of criticism centers on the Scottsdale Planning Commission, an advisory board to the City Council on land use and zoning matters. Critics say its members, appointed by the council, are too cozy with the development community because most have close ties to the industry.

According to documents reviewed by The Scottsdale Republic, all commission members except Vice Chairman Ed Grant are involved in development, and many are involved in Scottsdale projects.

A commissioner who has a direct tie to a project that comes before the commission typically will abstain from a vote. That has not deflected critics, who say that the members are too close to a development community. Others, however, say the members' experience is critical for a panel that is assessing proposed developments and making recommendations to the City Council, which has final say.

At least one council member believes membership standards need to change.

"The neighbors are exactly right. The Planning Commission represents the development community and not the residents, simple as that," said Councilman Bob Littlefield, who often has been in the minority in voting against development proposals in the past year. "We should actually have a rule that Planning Commission members should be required to have no ties to the development community."

Planning Commission members are appointed by the City Council.

City Clerk Carolyn Jagger said video records show Littlefield voted for D'Andrea's appointment in June 2008 and then for his reappointment in May 2011. Also, he voted for Commissioner Matthew Cody's appointment in January 2011, and for commissioners Ed Grant and Erik Filsinger's appointments in February 2009. In April, Littlefield did not cast a vote when Filsinger and Grant were reappointed.

When reached earlier this week, Littlefield initially told The Republic he had opposed all of the commissioners when their current terms came up for a vote. However, on Wednesday, Littlefield confirmed that he did vote to appoint and reappoint D'Andrea, and that he voted to reappoint Cody only to break a tie vote. He also confirmed that he did not cast any vote for Grant and Filsinger's reappointments in April.

Sonnie Kirtley, chairwoman of the Coalition of Greater Scottsdale, a citizens and small-business owners advocacy group, said the council's practice of appointing only "real estate or developer businessmen" has resulted in a high percentage of unanimous recommendations for approval and high number of conflict-of-interest declarations, she said.

"The coalition strongly supports opening appointments to the enormous pool of highly intelligent, non-real-estate, business-related residents who are quite capable of determining if a proposed project adheres to existing ordinances and is compatible with the General Plan policies," she said.

Commission Chairman Michael D'Andrea calls criticism of the commission "unfortunate and inaccurate."

"Scottsdale is where I make my home and choose to raise my children, and as such ... I make all planning decisions to the best of my ability, balancing my experience and technical skills as a design professional in combination with our city's guiding principals and policy documents to arrive at recommendations to the City Council that, based on the facts of each case, I believe to be in the best interest of all citizens of Scottsdale," he told The Republic.

Mayor Jim Lane said he hasn't heard any complaints about the commission or its decisions.

"We appoint people from residents of Scottsdale who apply for the job, and we do look for some ability, some background in the industry because it's good to have and it makes for better decisions," he said. "I don't embrace, endorse or consider that it's rightful to assume that we somehow have some unethical or illegal behavior taking place with our commissioners on any level."

The commission is a "highly technical board" that requires "people with knowledge of the building and development industry," added Vice Mayor Dennis Robbins.

"They're also all citizens as well, so ... they have a vested interest in how the city grows and develops," he said. "We want the best-quality development we can achieve, so we need people who know the industry and know what's quality and what isn't quality."

Relation to projects

In January 2011, the commission gave its unanimous support to modifying development standards to allow a taller building for the final phases of the Scottsdale Waterfront near Camelback and Scottsdale roads. Despite opposition from nearby residents, commissioners spoke highly of the request and D'Andrea even scolded those who complained.

D'Andrea now is working for Alliance Residential Co., the firm that is developing the final phases of the Waterfront. Its Broadstone at Waterfront will include 259 apartment units and 10,000 square feet of retail-restaurant space. D'Andrea is a member of the development team on the project.

D'Andrea recused himself when the commission considered Alliance's proposal on Aug. 8. The proposal is separate from the 2011 case and drew no opposition from residents. Broadstone at Waterfront likely would have been allowed even under the prior development standards.

So far this year, every commission member except David Brantner has recused himself from a case because of an apparent or potential conflict of interest:

D'Andrea (Broadstone at Waterfront).

Ed Grant (Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn Medical Center, because his wife is a labor and delivery nurse for Scottsdale Healthcare).

Jay Petkunas (Spanish Fly Mexican Beach Club, Echo at Windgate).

Matthew Cody (Echo at Windgate).

Michael Edwards (Portales Residential).

Erik Filsinger (Reata Ranch Guest Ranch,Sereno Canyon Spa & Resort, Optima Sonoran Village, the Reserve).

Sharp disagreements

Edwards, an architect, said there's nothing "negative" about commissioners being involved in projects in Scottsdale.

"I would argue that being involved in projects in Scottsdale and being a member of a board or commission makes one uniquely qualified to represent the residents of Scottsdale in that they have a council-appointed representative actually involved in the planning, focus and design of the project," he said.

Cody, a homebuilder, recused himself from the Echo at Windgate condominium proposal because of "appearance of impropriety -- might have interest in purchasing at some point in future," while Petkunas, chief operating officer of a Scottsdale-based real-estate private equity firm, recused himself because of "pending/prior investment activity with applicant."

Petkunas was out of town and couldn't be reached for comment. Cody said that, as a homebuilder who has been active in Scottsdale during the past two decades, he has developed a number of residential properties, "none of which required a rezoning and only a few of which went before the Development Review Board."

"In the years leading up to my appointment as a commissioner and during my term, I have only worked on one new project requiring Development Review Board approval," Cody said. "That project is scheduled to go before the board in September. The project is taking a property zoned and site-plan approved for 90, two-story condominiums, and presenting it with 78 single-story town homes, a proposal far from controversial and with no known opposition."

Grant, senior economic development project manager for Salt River Project, said he hasn't been involved in a project in Scottsdale since joining the commission.

"I'm quite confident that we, staff and a majority of the applicants, we see always do what they can to incorporate the views of our citizenry," he said.

Still, critics say they have noticed how a change in the panel's makeup has played out.

The commission used to have members who weren't involved in development, such as James Heitel and Eric Hess, but it "really started going downhill" after they left, said Howard Myers, president of the Desert Property Owners Association in north Scottsdale and former chairman of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission.

Heitel left the commission in July 2008, while Hess left in May 2009.

"I don't know how you justify putting people on there with a conflict of interest," Myers said. "That's why citizens feel they don't have a voice, nor will (commissioners) listen to them. We don't have anybody who's a normal citizen and has an interest in how the city develops."

Myers said recusals don't ensure that there are never conflicts of interest on the commission because they're not required to recuse themselves from cases that may indirectly benefit either them or their employers.

Filsinger, however, insisted commissioners are "professional and ethical in their duties."

"By city ordinance, this calls for recusing themselves from cases in which a conflict of interest exists," he said.

One "very important" stakeholder in the city's planning process is the property owner who might not be a resident, Filsinger added.

"It is the land that the Planning Commission must deal with and the owners of property in Scottsdale (have) a say both legally and in the interests of running Scottsdale well," he said. "They have entitlements that come with land ownership and those entitlements are quite binding on what the city can do."

Nancy Cantor, who has served on numerous city boards and commissions, said she is "very uncomfortable" with the selection process for the commission, questioning whether the odds are stacked against residents who may oppose a developer.

"I don't recall ever seeing anything pertaining to loading up the commission with construction, engineering, real-estate developers, architects and land planners," she said. "That was never part of the picture. It was supposed to represent the community along with those that have those skills, so a broader discussion of impact could take place."

Robbins said residents who want a change on the commission should apply and the council "would be happy to consider them for appointment."

Scottsdale Planning Commission members

Chairman Michael D'Andrea is a development and construction project executive with Phoenix-based Alliance Residential, one of the nation's largest private apartment owners. Also, president of Mirmor Development & Consulting Services.

Vice Chairman Ed Grant is senior economic development project manager for Salt River Project.

Commissioner Jay Petkunas is chief operating officer of the Wolff Co., a Scottsdale-based real-estate private equity firm that focuses on multifamily assets.

Commissioner Matthew Cody is owner/president of Scottsdale-based Cachet Homes.

Commissioner Michael Edwards is an architect with Tempe-based Davis architectural and design firm.

Commissioner David Brantner is co-owner of Fairway Homes in Scottsdale.

Commissioner Erik Filsinger is chief operating officer of Site Consultants Inc., a Tempe-based consulting civil engineering and land surveying firm.

by Edward Gately - Sept. 5, 2012 The Republic |

City Planning Commission draws criticism

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