The distance between the Original Burrito Co. and Walgreens near 48th Street and Elliot Road may seem like only a few feet. But the two buildings, though in the same plaza, aren't even in the same city. In fact, the Original Burrito Co. and the shops east, including the Grace Inn, aren't in a city at all.
"When I was a kid, Phoenix was over here and Chandler was on the road to Tucson. It wasn't like all these cities had grown together," said Hal DeKeyser, District 6 chief of staff. "As cities grew they annexed new land into the city."
Ahwatukee Foothills was first developed as part of Maricopa County, according to Michelle Dodds, principal planner at the city of Phoenix. As it grew, the planners chose which city to join and they were annexed in. Somewhere along the way the small shopping plaza near 51st Street and Elliot Road was never annexed in.
"There's a few of those," said Cris Meyers, city manager for Phoenix. "Another one is the Phoenix Country Club. The clubhouse is in the city but the golf course itself is on a county island outside the city.
"To be annexed, the property owner has to sign a petition supporting the annexation or a majority of property owners around that have to sign (a petition). At the time those properties were annexed, either there was enough value or not enough ownership to annex those parcels, so they have never decided to sign a petition or request annexation into the city."
Being a county island, as these small areas are called, has some benefits and some downsides. County islands do not have city services but they don't have city taxes either.
"We have less sales tax. I don't have to have a business license through the city of Phoenix and it saves me money," said Raymond Steeves, co-owner of Three Dudes Quilting, which is located inside the shopping center. "That's one of the reasons we chose to be here. There's a benefit to me. Two percent sales tax doesn't seem like much, but sales tax is getting so high now. We're at 7.5 percent, across the street they're at 9.5 and down the road in Mesa they're at 10 percent already. It's anywhere from 2 to 3 cents on the dollar that we save being in a county island."
Part of the city services that county islands may not be eligible for are fire and police. County islands are supposed to rely on the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department for protection, but Steeves says that's yet another benefit.
"When the bank, which is right in front of us and also on the county island, was robbed the police were there in three minutes and the sheriff was there in four minutes," Steeves said. "They got both Maricopa County Police Department and the Phoenix Police Department. It was instant. It's not like we're left out or ignored because we're a county island. The police show up."
There are some downsides to being a county island though. Steeves says the county has taken months to approve different things when it comes to starting a business, and the regulations may be harsher. Steeves said he's seen many businesses within the shopping center struggle to get permitting approved so they could open for business.
"When I went to get my sign up on the building, all I was doing was putting up a sign," Steeves said. "The requirements were that I provide a map of the entire shopping center that is certified by an architect. Then I had to get a certified artist drawing of the inside of the building. I was already moved in. I had to hire an architect to design what was already built. Then it cost me, after four long months, almost $800 for the permit just to put a sign up. The disadvantage is the county is very slow and very particular when it comes to getting businesses up and going. They're not user-friendly."
Now that Steeves is established, he says from conversations with other business owners in the plaza, they're happy just the way they are. It may seem strange to be a county in the middle of a city but they don't want to be annexed in.
"I know that a lot of places around the Valley that are residential versus commercial would probably like to be annexed into the city, wherever they are," Steeves said. "I hear that every once in a while because the roads aren't being taken care of or whatever else.
"This county island that we're in is absolutely so small that the Walgreens on the end of the shopping center is not in the county island. Basically, it only includes the shopping center. We're all established now and so we're fine. The roads are maintained by the city because the county starts in our parking lot."
It's not uncommon to decide not to annex. DeKeyser says there's plenty of areas like that across the Valley. Sun City and Sun City West decided not to annex at all. They rely on the county for most of their services and homeowners associations supply the rest.
"They don't get state-shared revenues and they depend on the sheriff for policing," DeKeyser said. "It's cheaper to live and there's less regulation. Some argue you may have less clout in regional decision making because you don't have a mayor. However, when it comes to the Legislature, there's such a high voter turnout from that area that people pay attention to them because they're high voters. Ahwatukee has a high voter turnout, too."
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