Originally Published: November 29, 2017 6:05 a.m.
Five months of review, dozens of hours of public discussion, and nearly 140 comments from the public culminated this week with Prescott City Council approval of the Deep Well Ranch project.
In three consecutive 6-1 votes on Tuesday, Nov. 28, the council OK’d the related rezoning, airport-area plan, and development agreement that will allow the 1,800-acre Deep Well project to go forward under a master plan.
The project has generated considerable debate in the community — especially on the 10,500-home cap that is included in the master plan.
City officials have recorded about 138 concerns from the public over the course of the consideration, which began this past July with an introduction of the project to the City Council and continued throughout the summer and fall with multiple open houses, planning and zoning meetings, and council study-sessions.
Mayor Harry Oberg, in his last meeting as mayor, told the packed room that city officials had paid attention to the residents’ concerns. “We read them, and just about every one of the concerns” had been addressed in the revised documents, he said.
“I trust my city manager, city attorney, and city staff, and I’m prepared to go to a vote,” said Oberg, who had pushed last week for more time for review of the evolving master plan and development agreement.
Over the past weekend, Oberg said he was able to read all of the revisions, and said, “I feel right now that the master plan, development agreement, and airport specific area plan are in conformance with (the city’s) general plan.”
But Councilwoman Jean Wilcox – although she also commended city staff for their hours of review –
said a number of issues continued to raise concerns.
For instance, during a Tuesday-morning study session on the project, Wilcox pressed James Foundation attorney Robert Pecharich about the future of the thousands of acres of ranchland that is not included in the 1,800-acre project.
Pecharich has pointed out that the entire Deep Well Ranch, which is located northeast of Prescott, consists of about 18,000 acres. Of that, he said, the James Foundation opted to develop 10 percent of the acreage, and leave the remaining acres as a working ranch.
At the morning study session, Pecharich repeated that, noting that the family’s intention stems from original owner Mitzi James’ wishes that the land remain a working ranch.
That led Wilcox to ask for a more formal arrangement, such as a conservation easement to restrict the future uses on the land.
“I’m looking for a commitment; not just a statement of intent,” Wilcox said. Without a formal commitment, she said, the remaining 16,000 acres or so of the ranch could be developed in the future with a density similar to the one being proposed on the 1,800 acres.
Pecharich responded: “You’re looking for a commitment (on property) outside city limits, which, I think, goes beyond your jurisdiction.” He said a conservation easement would be overly restrictive and would devalue the land, which would be detrimental to the Foundation’s efforts.
Developers and city officials have stressed that availability of water would dictate future development on the Deep Well Ranch land. In order for the remaining 16,000 acres to be developed within city limits, they say, owners would need to acquire water rights from another source, and would have to go through a lengthy and public annexation and rezoning process.
During the afternoon voting session, Wilcox also voiced concerns about the 10,500-home cap for the 1,800-acre Deep Well project. She said the water that is currently available through the city would serve less than 4,000 homes, and added, “I do not believe we should approve a master plan for anything beyond what we have water for today.”
Other council members have maintained, however, that the main decision for the council was on whether the land should be developed under a master plan, or through a more “piecemeal” process of separate subdivisions.
Councilwoman Billie Orr said her response to residents asking why she supported the project was that “a master plan would be much better than piecemeal.”
She added that the city originally approached the James family about 10 years ago and asked them to annex into Prescott city limits – a request that ultimately led to the proposal currently under consideration.
Tuesday’s voting session was the formal public hearing for the rezoning of the 1,800 acres, and a number of people – both for and against the project – offered their views on the project.
Local resident Kevin Lane stressed the philanthropic support that the James family has provided the community through the years, including the YMCA, the Yavapai Regional Medical Center, and the renovation of the Elks Theatre.
Lane urged the council to consider “who’s really behind the project, and that’s the James family … who are generous, probably second to none in the community.”
Resident Maria Elena Dunn, on the other hand, pointed out that she had heard considerable discussion about the landowners’ private-property rights. But she pointed out that she would counter that with: “The city has bent over backwards to accommodate the needs of the developer” – despite the fact that many people in the community appear to be opposed to the project.
Retired engineer Al Williams noted that many of the decisions about the development actually occurred several years ago, with the annexation of the ranchland into city limits.
“When you get to this point, many of the important decisions have already been made,” Williams said, adding, “I think you need to move on; you have only one choice. You don’t have a choice of turning it down.”
On each of the three votes related to the project, Wilcox cast the sole vote against the motions.