In ancient Greece, the rulers of Sparta strove to create a utopian society by criminalizing excessive consumption, imposing rigid egalitarian rules and demanding absolute discipline from their citizenry.
More than 2,500 years later, a group of East Valley visionaries has taken a page from that scroll, projecting an imaginary future for the massive section of state trust land known as Superstition Vistas that includes strict limits on energy and water use, tough environmental standards and centrally imposed, universally applied rules for zoning and construction.
Some local leaders say the report on Superstition Vistas gives short shrift to affordability and the democratic process by imagining a community in which voters are considered a nuisance and expensive environmental technology cuts middle-class families out of the housing market.
But researchers at Arizona State University’s Morrison institute for Public Policy who wrote the 30-page report said they aren’t expecting the public to buy into all of their ideas.
The goal is to generate discussion about ways to develop the 275 square miles of desert east of Mesa without exhausting limited supplies of water and power, they said, while creating a cohesive community that balances the interests of home, work and play.
“We’re not trying to say what should happen,” said Grady Gammage Jr., Morrison Institute senior research fellow and the report’s lead author.
The $200,000 study, funded by Apache Junction, Mesa, Queen Creek, Pinal County, Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy/Sonoran Institute State Trust Lands Joint Venture, describes possible scenarios for the area’s future that focus on government, environment and infrastructure.
The scenarios, written in a detailed, narrative style, were inspired by interviews and brainstorming sessions with dozens of East Valley leaders, Gammage said.
Development of Superstition Vistas is important to a variety of local interests for several reasons. Some nearby municipalities would like to annex portions of the area, and others want to ensure its residents won’t glut their roads, schools and other facilities.
Developers see the area as the East Valley’s largest remaining blank slate, a place where they can buy unencumbered land in bulk from a single source.
For utilities, it represents both an opportunity and a challenge: Will it be possible to provide for the 900,000 people Morrison’s researchers estimate will live there without starving the rest of the Valley?
Environmentalists also have a stake in the land, not only because it abuts areas of pristine desert beauty such as the Middle Gila Conservation Area to the east, but because of its potential for pollution and excessive water consumption.
Gammage said the message he heard repeated most often was that the planners and developers of Superstition Vistas should stray from “business as usual” and find innovative ways to make it a special place.
He also advocates sweeping changes to the Arizona Land Department, which is tasked with selling the land to fund schools and universities. Gammage supports a state initiative to let the department keep some of that money to increase its capacity and allow it to operate more as private developers do.
“The principal recipient of this report is not the cities but the land department,” he said.
The entirety of Superstition Vistas will not be sold off for decades, but the first small piece — about three square miles — is expected to be auctioned to a developer later this year.
Gammage and others said thinking now about how the community should evolve will help prevent a future comedy of errors or a tragedy of reckless sprawl.
The Morrison Institute report envisions a city called Superstitionville that could reach a population of 900,000 by the year 2060. Here’s the scenario:
Superstitionville’s entire infrastructure has been planned in advance, so there are no fights over locating freeways and power lines. The community has an abundance of parks, trails and open spaces, but golf courses are discouraged because residents view them as a waste of land and water.
Block walls between residences are prohibited, thanks in part to the city’s original mayor, Thomas Hanson, who in 2008 advocated the policy as a way to increase neighborliness.
Through a process called “pre-incorporation” approved by the Legislature in 2008, Superstitionville was created and a City Council appointed before a single resident moved in. Acting like a homeowners association board but on a larger scale, Hanson and his colleagues created a comprehensive general plan for the area and strict guidelines for development.
“Without citizens to quarrel with the council’s proposals, it was easy to adopt a sweeping set of land use plans, development ordinances, and design review guidelines,” the report states.
Gammage said he’s not sure it would be a good idea to have an unelected body set the ground rules for future residents, but it would allow plans to be developed quickly and with little argument.
“Democracy is not the most efficient form of government,” he said. “It’s just the most responsive.”
Apache Junction City Manager George Hoffman said he is “challenged” by Gammage’s vision of a pre-incorporated city because planning decisions should reflect the values and opinions of residents, not a group of autonomous rulers.
“It’s like a desire to have an academic philosopher king (who) knows what’s good for the citizens better than the citizens themselves,” Hoffman said. “I don’t espouse that philosophy.”
Morrison Institute associate director Nancy Welch, who also worked on the report, said it’s important for municipal leaders to understand that the scenarios offered are not recommendations but are merely meant to generate discussion.
“We had to say over and over again that these are not plans,” she said.
Still, Hoffman objected to the notion that pre-incorporation would make government run smoother by removing voters from the planning process.
“Citizens are not an obstacle to overcome,” he said.
Another aspect of pre-incorporation that might pose a problem for surrounding municipalities such as Apache Junction, Mesa and Queen Creek is that forming a 200-squaremile city, as the report suggests, would prevent others from annexing a large portion of Superstition Vistas.
But Gammage said it would prevent those municipalities from splitting the community into distinct sections, which would result in piecemeal development.
The report points to Irvine Ranch, a 145-square-mile community on the California coast, as an example of how an urban community under a single local government’s direction can provide residents with the right mix of neighborhoods, commercial areas and open spaces by taking the whole area into consideration.
“If you parcel it out between those cities, you get a bunch of different things,” Gammage said.
Still, Hoffman said he doesn’t necessarily think splitting up the area would be a bad thing.
“I’m not sure that we need one cohesive product for 275 square miles of state land,” he said.
GREEN MEANS GO
In the imaginary Superstitionville, developers are required to minimize energy consumption by incorporating renewable energy sources into businesses and homes.
Growth is guided by strict “performance codes” that limit water and power usage as well as the amount of heat generated by roads, sidewalks and rooftops.
Households are required to use about half the amount of water and electricity consumed in other parts of the state.
As a result, roofs are lined with solar panels, and shared plumbing systems reduce water usage while recycling gray water for appropriate uses.
“Some neighborhoods, especially very dense ones, used a central heating and cooling plant instead of individual home units,” the report states. “A significant number of consumers sold home-generated power back to SRP, making it easier for the utility to meet its renewable energy requirements.”
Wayne Balmer, a Mesa official who specializes in planning issues, said imposing the kind of “green building” standards described in the report might be the only way to develop the area, which will have to compete with other communities for water rights.
“The area has no farmland. It doesn’t have any particular claim to water,” said Balmer, Williams Gateway area project manager.
Under current law, developers must demonstrate prior to construction that they have access to an assured water supply for at least the next 100 years. The Morrison report lists a number of possible sources for Superstitionville’s water, including Central Arizona Project and other Colorado River water, groundwater and reclaimed water.
Hoffman said he sees the report’s emphasis on conservation as a validation of Apache Junction’s ongoing “green” efforts. A new City Hall complex completed in March 2005 is the first in the state to qualify for a strict environmental classification known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, he said.
Still, placing devices to save water and power on each home would add about $70,000 to the price, Gammage said, leaving little chance of affordable housing for low- and middle-income families.
Hoffman said he likes the challenge of building enviro-friendly communities, but conservation must be balanced with affordability for the sake of working people.
“We need a place where firefighters and nurses and schoolteachers can live,” he said.
LAND REFORM NEEDED
The vision of Superstitionville depicted in the Morrison Institute study will not be possible unless the Arizona Land Department takes a more active role in the area’s planning, Gammage said, but it lacks the necessary manpower and money under existing rules.
Although a state-funded planning study of the entire area would cost millions of dollars, he said it would facilitate quality development and ultimately generate more money for the land trust.
If the department could retain a percentage of the proceeds from trust land sales, it could use that money to reinvest in planning, staff and other resources, he said.
Deputy Land Commissioner Richard Hubbard said he is not taking a position on the land trust reforms Gammage proposes, but he favors any move that would allow the department to do a better job.
“The land department has always advocated additional tools to bring urban state trust land into production,” Hubbard said.
The Morrison Institute proposes selling off the land in village-sized chunks to a master developer who would agree to produce a detailed infrastructure plan for an even larger surrounding area. The developer’ subsequent profits would be shared with the land department via a “participation agreement.”
The approach would make it tough for smaller developers to compete initially, the report states, but they could participate in later auctions for smaller parcels already planned by the master developer.
Hubbard said that idea is an extrapolation of what the department is already doing on a smaller scale. The first threesquare-mile section of Superstition Vistas, called Lost Dutchman Heights and located inside Apache Junction, will be sold as early as October to a developer that must agree to plan the surrounding nine square miles.
Although the land department has been embroiled in legal disputes with the Maricopa County Flood Control District, the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest and Scottsdale developer George Johnson that could prevent the sale, Hubbard said he is confident those issues can be resolved in time.
Johnson, who laid claim to a portion of Lost Dutchman Heights because of an application he filed in 1999 to purchase it, already has agreed “not to pursue any claims, and he has been very professional about it,” Hubbard said.
Gammage, also a lawyer, represents one company that has expressed interest in buying the land.
Lend Lease, a developer of large master-planned communities based in Australia, already is doing about $500,000 worth of preliminary planning work on the area through a contract with the land department.
“I’m conscious of the fact that may look a little odd,” Gammage said about his role in writing the report while also working for a developer with eyes on Superstition Vistas.
Still, he said the report’s depiction of tough building standards and environmental restrictions hardly favors developers.
“What’s developer-friendly is business as usual,” Gammage said.
• Read the full Morrison Institute report, “The Treasure of the Superstitions,” online at www.morrisoninstitute.org or call (480) 965-4525.
• A presentation on the report is scheduled Thursday at the Pointe South Mountain Resort, 7777 S. Pointe Parkway West, Phoenix. For information, visit www.evp-az.org.