City of Flagstaff Year in Review: Tackling expected and unexpected challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic again dominated in 2021, but Flagstaff still focused on tackling numerous issues ranging from the expected — such as the start of recreational marijuana sales — and the unexpected, pivoting to address bike safety following the devastating Flag Bike Party accident that shook the community.


Here’s a look at the top city stories of 2021:


Recreational marijuana comes to Flagstaff


Arizona welcomed the legalization and sales of recreational marijuana in 2021 — and Flagstaff was quick to follow other cities and vote in new restrictions.


The Flagstaff City Council voted in March to limit recreational sales to medical dispensaries holding a dual license. They also placed a hold on allowing any new recreational weed shops to open within city limits, as well as allowing individual property owners to prohibit marijuana usage on private property, formalizing enforcement violations and restricting usage on city property.


Despite this, Flagstaff’s newly expanded dispensaries reported long lines and record sales during the first few months of recreational marijuana.


Renewed attention on bike safety


Flagstaff renewed its focus on bike safety after a community ride ended in multiple injuries and the death of 29-year-old Joanna “Jo” Wheaton.


Six cyclists participating in the Flag Bike Party were hit by a tow truck on May 28. Police say the driver ran the red light. The driver was arrested and the case is still ongoing in Coconino County Superior Court.


In the days following, Flagstaff residents called for the city to make significant improvements to bike safety, such as lowering speed limits and separating bikeways.


The city added protected bike lanes along 2 miles of the heavily trafficked Butler Avenue and Beaver Street in July to make multi-modal transportation safer and more appealing to the public, and more near Flagstaff Medical Center later in the year.


The barriers will serve as a pilot project for future developments to enhance bicycling, aligning closely with the upcoming Active Transportation Master Plan. The plan also includes the creation of a network of separate bike lanes and other improvements.


Route 66 bridge replacement


Arizona Department of Transportation crews replaced the nearly century-old Rio de Flag bridge in June.


Crews worked round-the-clock to replace the 1934 bridge while trying to reduce interruptions in downtown’s busy summer traffic. The project closed Route 66 in front of Flagstaff City Hall temporarily but was back open in seemingly no time.


The replacement bridge added another left-turn lane from eastbound Historic Route 66 to northbound Humphreys Street and helped with long-term flood control efforts.


Events return


Flagstaff welcomed back events in 2021 after months of forced pandemic-related cancellations. Events like Hullabaloo, Pickin’ in the Pines, Oktoberfest and more once again filled weekend calendars after special event permits in the city no longer placed a cap on attendees in July. Before the change, events had been operating under a capacity calculator based on the size of the venue. Many, however, kept mask requirements in place and encouraged social distancing to combat the spread of COVID-19.


But things still felt unsettled as the number of cases continued to fluctuate throughout the year. The continued uncertainty left some holders of special event permits worried their investment may be impacted by public safety policies imposed by city officials.


In August, city officials pledged to provide event planners with 72-hour advance notice on future changes to the COVID-19 mitigation policy.


Judge sides with Flagstaff in minimum wage battle


After a multiyear legal battle, a judge ruled that Arizona can’t charge Flagstaff for having its own minimum wage.


The October ruling blocked Arizona from collecting $1.1 million from the City of Flagstaff for having a minimum wage higher than the state’s on the basis that the state missed the deadline for the assessment. The ruling, however, didn’t answer whether the assessments were even constitutional.


The state minimum wage reached $12 an hour in 2020. Voters approved a plan to phase in a higher minimum wage in 2016.

 Flagstaff’s minimum wage is currently $15 per hour — the highest in the state.


Per the law, the minimum wage will increase by another 50 cents in January 2022. It will then hold steady at $15.50 unless the state minimum wage increases.


Lowell backs off land


Lowell Observatory backed off from its pursuit of congressional legislation altering federal restrictions on more than 600 acres of nearby property after failing to secure the support of the Flagstaff City Council.


Lowell hoped to remove federal restrictions on how the area — known as Section 17. The 640 acres of former U.S. Forest Service property was granted to the observatory in 1910 under the requirement that it must be used for “observatory purposes” or it would go back to the Forest Service.


But confusion over what exactly that entails has haunted the property for years, a reason why Lowell sought to have the restriction stripped and instead placed under the jurisdiction of the City of Flagstaff. Observatory officials said they could work with the city and community to develop a plan for the area.


The plan was opposed by several local groups as well as a nearby neighborhood, citing the lack of a master plan. Ultimately, city council voted not to support the observatory’s efforts to lobby Congress in a November meeting.


Alternative response model moves forward


Flagstaff will soon have an alternative to first responders for those in crisis. The Flagstaff City Council approved a $2.5 million contract with Terros Health to develop and deploy a mobile alternate response unit.


The unit will consist of one behavioral specialist, as well as a firefighter or emergency medical technician. The team will work out of a van equipped with specialized equipment to respond to 911 calls and conduct proactive outreach.


The city sought an alternative to traditional policing after an increase in calls for service related to public intoxication, behavioral crisis and mental health. The mobile response unit is expected to reduce the number of calls handled by Flagstaff fire and police departments by 5-10%. They’ll also be better equipped to handle those calls.


City officials said the unit is expected to launch in early 2022.


Cities across the country made similar moves in 2021 following a renewed focus on the role of law enforcement in 2020.


Flagstaff makes 1st step in combating housing emergency


Flagstaff City Council declared a housing emergency in December 2020, prompting the city housing section to create a 10-year housing plan. The goal? To find solutions for the more than 22,000 Flagstaff residents burdened by the city’s extreme housing costs.

The extensive study and plan were released nearly a year later and finalized in December.


According to city documents, the 10-year housing plan also prioritizes supporting cost-burdened individuals through financial assistance programs — known as housing subsidies — like rental and down payment assistance. Those subsidies are key to addressing the housing emergency, officials suggested.


The plan is especially targeted at creating new affordable housing units, connecting residents to equitable housing solutions and keeping current affordable housing solutions intact.


Housing officials identified two elements to attain that goal: to create or preserve 7,976 units by 2031 with a minimum of 10% affordable housing; and to impact at least 6,000 low- to moderate-income level Flagstaff residents.


AUTHOR: Bree Burkitt

SOURCE: The Daily Sun

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