Depending on who’s talking, a massive development proposed for Southeast Mesa either threatens economic development around Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport or marks the inevitable and welcome replacement of six large dairy farms.
But one thing is certain: The Planned Area Development called Hawes Crossing would change that part of the city forever, if it is approved.
Located about a mile north of the airport, the mixed-use proposal will eventually go before Mesa City Council for what Mayor John Giles called possibly the most important decision he and many of his colleagues will make during their tenure in office.
“You are talking about 1,000 acres,’’ Giles said. “This is comparable to Dobson Ranch or Eastmark. For many generations, people will benefit or suffer from our decisions.’’
A coalition of six longtime dairy farmers and residents of nearby Boulder Creek who want to see 15,000 cows and their smelly manure gone as quickly as possible won a preliminary victory last Wednesday when the Planning and Zoning Board voted 3-2 to recommend Council’s approval of zoning changes that would make construction of housing possible.
The conflicting arguments about Hawes Crossing emerged during the three-hour hearing, which was packed by about 50 supporters wearing yellow shirts.
Economic development advocates, including the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, warned that residential encroachment on the airport eventually could lead restrict their operations.
“What we’re concerned about is the long-term impact on the airport,’’ said Otto Shill, an attorney who spoke for the chamber.
“They will ultimately complain,’’ he said, alluding to new residents of Hawes Crossing. “It will become a political problem, people complaining about noise, fuel and hydraulic fluid. We think the future of the airport could well be in danger.’’
Even if new home buyers sign required disclosure statements, the real problems would begin when people buy the houses from them, opponents fear.
Mesa’s Economic Development Advisory Board expressed similar reservations, saying that it makes no sense to squander development opportunities along powerful Salt River Project transmission lines on Elliot Road by allowing housing.
Those transmission lines have helped lure big data center operators to the region.
The dairy farmers and their zoning attorney, Jordan Rose, argued about the benefits of a cohesive master plan for development of more than 1,000 acres roughly bordered by Elliot Road and the Loop 202.
She said the development would unlock the area’s potential, with 56 percent of the site still devoted to job creation.
“It’s going to be a special place unlike anything Mesa has ever seen,’’ Rose said of the proposal – the culmination of three years of planning.
“We have gone through 28 renditions of this plan,” she said. “We really wanted to get it right.’’
J. Brian O’Neill, the airport’s executive director and CEO, carefully walked a tightrope, saying the airport does not oppose the Hawes Crossing plan.
But he also warned that new residents would hear and see planes in Airport Overflight Area III.
O’Neill said the airspace over the Hawes Crossing site is heavily used by flight schools, which are continuing the pilot-training mission that dates back to World War II during the operation of Williams Air Force Base, which preceded Gateway.
While most airports protect their closest and noisiest areas, Airport Overflight Areas I and II, from residential development, the east Mesa airport added Area III as an additional means of disclosure to future residents, he said.
The first waves of homeowners in Hawes Crossing likely would be aware of their close proximity to the airport through deed restrictions, disclosure notices and signs required in sales offices.
The real problem, O’Neill said, typically occurs when the houses turn over to the second, third and fourth owners, who may not understand the noise associated with living in the area and may clamor for flight restrictions.
“I assure you that is not a good thing for an airport,’’ O’Neill said.
A letter from the airport’s management was quoted by Planning and Zoning Board member Jeffrey Crockett, who joined with Tim Boyle in voting no. Chairwoman Michelle Dahlke and members Jessica Sarkissian and Deanna Villanueva-Saucedo voted yes.
“Any development at this location, due to its proximity to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport will be subject to frequent and high levels of aircraft overflights and will be affected by noise,’’ wrote Anthony Bianchi, the airport authority’s planning manager.
“Occupants will hear and see aircraft landing and taking off from the Airport and will experience aircraft overflights that generate noise levels considered by many to be “annoying,” Bianchi warned.
Approval from the Federal Aviation Administration would be required before any housing construction permits could be issued.
“This area is going to be an amazing job creator. It will put us on the map if we don’t mess it up,’’ said former East Mesa City Councilmember Rex Griswold, who vehemently opposes housing in that area.
“There’s a lot of companies interested in this land. There’s not a lot of industrial land available,’’ he said. “If you don’t have the jobs, you are a bedroom community, with people driving an hour to work.’’
But Sarkissian, a professional land planner, emerged as Hawes Crossing’s biggest supporter on the planning board.
“I think it enables great mixed-use development. I think it’s very well thought out,’’ she said. “I think it really came together nicely.’’
Sarkissian said she does not view Hawes Crossing as a threat to the airport and that people are bound to complain no matter what.
“I feel as if Mesa and our commission and the council has been very strong and supportive of the airport. As long as that continues, I don’t see a future problem.’’
Former Mesa planning director Wayne Balmer said he did not think he could oppose Hawes Crossing if the airport did not. He liked the assembly of properties into one coherent plan, setting a tone for future development throughout the area.
“I thought it would give it a unique theme and character,’’ Balmer said.
The plan does not detail what kind of housing is being considered. Nor does it mention the name of any developer.
Giles said a council vote on the zoning case is weeks, if not months away and that he has not decided yet on whether he will vote yes or no.
Calling Hawes Crossing one of Mesa’s most important zoning cases in decades, he said, “We are not going to do anything that would impede operation of the airport.’’
“We get only one chance to do it right,” Giles added. “It’s important to me not to rush into a decision.’’
Councilman Kevin Thompson, whose fast-growing District 6 includes Hawes Crossing, said he is planning to vote no to protect the airport.
He said he sympathizes with the dairy farmers, who want to move away from the path of development to a more rural location.
Most of those farmers have been in that area for about 40 years.
“The more people I spoke with, the more they told me to protect the airport,’’ Thompson said. “The airport is our biggest asset in southeast Mesa. We have seen what has happened to airports across the country.’’
He said the dairy owners have valid arguments, but in the end, he has to protect the city’s long-term interests.
“It’s about building a vision and sticking to that vision,’’ Thompson said.
Jim Boyle, a dairyman who served as a spokesman for his dairy partners in Hawes Crossing, said the six families have been patient in putting together the project.
But he said they can’t wait forever for a decision because they are at a crossroad between spending millions of dollars in renovations or selling their properties.
He said remaining in the path of development makes no sense. The lack of agriculture nearby forces him to truck his manure to southern Arizona and finding feed for the cows is increasingly difficult.
“I don’t want to make a quick buck off of this thing,’’ Boyle said. “We want to leave behind a really nice development. I think we have really great plans that we all support.’’
Jason Barney of Gilbert, another property owner in the area, said, “I see this part of Mesa as a jewel for future development. Right now, this whole area is locked up by the zoning. This project unlocks that.’’