1,420 homes may line 9,671 acres of preserved north Phoenix desert

Bicyclists like Dan Centilli say they ride the two-lane road that carves the remote landscape near the 9,671-acre Sonoran Preservein north Phoenix for safety and serenity.Hikers trek the 6-mile loop off the Apache Wash Trailhead for the beauty of the cactuses and wildflowers with a mountain backdrop. People move to the closest neighborhoods, 5 miles away, to be away from the commotion of the city, while still living in it.For decades, though, Phoenix officials have known that development would eventually reach this pocket between Interstate 17 and Cave Creek Road, north of Deer Valley and south of Cave Creek.As the time comes for the first community to be approved for development along the winding Sonoran Desert Drive, outdoor enthusiasts from across the region and residents living nearby, who make up a group called Save Our Sonoran Preserve, say they will try to see that the plan respects the landscape they love.Centilli, one of many elite triathletes who train in the area, calls the Sonoran Preserve the “crown jewel” of north Phoenix. He and others believe this development will set the expectations for miles of undeveloped land around it, most of which is still owned by the state.“You only get one shot at this,” Centilli said.


Developer says its plan is ‘truly unique’


The plan for Verdin, a 1,420 single-family home community on nearly 500 acres, is set to come before the Phoenix City Council this spring.The proposal first went before neighborhood groups in 2019, but has been on hold as the developer worked with city officials to come up with a plan for who would pay for road improvements, and designed the perimeter to fade into the surrounding desert.The plan always has been to develop the area in a sensitive manner that will blend larger-lot homes into the desert, according to Alan Stephenson, the city’s planning director. The density for Verdin would be, on average, three homes per acre.The developer, Taylor Morrison, plans to build a public trail through the property and to build the community as a certified National Wildlife Federation community, which requires native plants and habitats. The company promises “a truly unique, context-sensitive community that sets the bar high for any future development in the area,” according to spokesperson Alice Giedraitis.


Desert overlay a sticking point


The two-lane road that is Sonoran Desert Drive eventually will become a six-lane parkway, connecting commuters traveling between Loop 101 and I-17. Already during rush hour, traffic gets bottlenecked at intersections.The expansive cholla fields and giant saguaros on the south side of the road will give way to the signature concrete and stucco of the Valley’s suburban sprawl. The new communities to come will be sandwiched between the two separate northern and southern areas of the mountainous Sonoran Preserve.Drive along the road now and the only warning signs of the development to come are rezoning signs south of the road, just east of the Apache Wash Trailhead parking lot.


The city not only preserved the mountains from development, but also placed what it calls a desert overlay over much of the land. That establishes strict rules for what can be built on the land and how, restricting development to one to two homes per acre.


A sticking point among opponents is the developer’s request to eliminate that overlay from where it sits on one-third of its property south of Sonoran Desert Drive.Stephenson said the city’s original intention was to have the overlay on the north side of the road only, and the developers are requesting that it follow that intention. But keeping the overlay there would significantly reduce housing density along the road, and may reduce the density of the project overall, which would please recreational activists looking to preserve the peace of the area, such as Gary Kirkilas of the Save Our Sonoran Preserve group.


That group, which had dozens of residents show up to oppose the project in 2019, has been paying attention to the plans since then. Kirkilas and Centilli, also part of the group, said they are going to try their best to convince city leaders that leaving the overlay is the right way to control development in the area.“We don’t necessarily think it’s an unnecessary ask,” Centilli said.Stephenson said the higher density south of the road will allow for more affordable homes in the area.


Public trail, desert edge along preserve


If Verdin is approved and built the way it is designed right now, the edge of the property won’t look like an ordinary Phoenix neighborhood, fenced off by brick walls. Instead, it will have a trail network and low gate that allows residents and visitors to stroll along the open desert.This is to prevent what has happened in some neighborhoods along preserved city land, “where you see a mountain but no way to get to it,” Stephenson said.


The developer’s rezoning plan includes 90 pages of detail on the design of the property, including requiring native vegetation throughout, restricting the number of homes that back up to the preserve, guidelines for fencing along the preserve and guidelines for trail development.Taylor Morrison believes its plan proves that development “can provide much-needed housing to support the growing economic and employment base in north Phoenix, but can also be a flagship community and steward of its desert context,” Giedraitis said.


Paying for new lanes, traffic signals


The developer will try to get support from residents serving on two village planning committees before taking it to the Planning Commission and then the City Council.Councilmember Jim Waring, who represents the area, said he will wait to hear what those residents think about the plan before making a decision on what’s best for the area.The developer has agreed to construct additional turn lanes and traffic signal improvements at Sonoran Desert Drive and Cave Creek Road to help with traffic issues, and will build turn lanes and a traffic signal along the property frontage to help with traffic flow.


Instead of making the developer pay to build out the road in its entirety, the city is instead asking for a cash contribution of $12 million to $16 million, according to Taylor Morrison.That will come over time, as a cash contribution at the time of the sale of each lot, Stephenson said. Collecting that money, along with money from the state, will help the city build out the road network in the area, he said.Many worry that not building additional lanes now on Sonoran Desert Drive will lead to even worse traffic once more homes come in. Stephenson said that a traffic study shows that the improvements at the intersections will do enough to mitigate traffic for now.


Reach the reporter at jen.fifield@azcentral.com or at 602-444-8763. Follow her on Twitter @JenAFifield


AUTHOR: Jen Fifield

SOURCE: Arizona Republic

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