Ex-Arizona schools superintendent Diane Douglas seeks Peoria City Council seat after development draws backlash

Arizona’s former state schools superintendent plans to run for Peoria City Council after a controversial development proposal near her neighborhood advances and could be approved by the council this coming week.

Two candidates have filed statements of interest in running for north Peoria’s Mesquite District seat vacated by Bridget Binsbacher as she runs for mayor. One is Planning and Zoning Commissioner Brad Shafer and the other is Diane Douglas, the at-times controversial elected state schools superintendent who served from 2015 to 2018.

Douglas, who also served as a Peoria school board member, worked to replace Arizona’s academic standards and fought Gov. Doug Ducey over hiring and firing practices during her tenure.

Shafer was the lone resident to apply to be appointed to the vacancy, which the City Council is expected to vote on by May 4.

The appointment is a stop-gap measure until a special election is held in November.

At least one of the issues that has Mesquite residents engaged is a proposed 45-acre development called The Trailhead that would include apartments, a church, grocery store, restaurants and shops at 83rd Avenue and Happy Valley Road.

At least 115 residents have written to the city in support of the project, while 93 have expressed opposition, according to city documents.

Supporters say one large, cohesive development that the city has pitched as “Kierland-esque” would be better than piecemeal development, which might detract from the beauty of Sunrise Mountain Preserve just across the way.

But critics argue more apartments would mean more traffic on roads and more students in already crowded schools. Some are rallying against the council, threatening to mobilize and vote out any council member who approves the project.

Some also are questioning Binsbacher’s connection to the developer’s attorney, who is raising funds for her mayoral campaign.

Binsbacher and attorney Paul Gilbert said the fundraising has nothing to do with the project, and note that Binsbacher would not vote on the project since she resigned from the council, as required by law, to run for mayor in the Aug. 2 election.

Shafer, Douglas vie for vacant seat
Neither Shafer nor Douglas will get the chance to vote on The Trailhead, but Shafer sits on Peoria’s Planning and Zoning Commission and recently voted to advance the project.

Shafer told The Arizona Republic he viewed the project as “the lesser of two evils.” He doesn’t like the apartments, he said, but the proposal creates one cohesive vision for an important intersection that would otherwise be developed by six landowners.

“This is a master-planned, commercial development … that would create a destination location for our community,” he said. “If we voted “no” and the developer walks away, now you have six different parcels and six different owners, and who knows what you could have got?”

Douglas, who lives in the West Wing neighborhood north of the project, is against it.

Diane Douglas.
In an email she sent to the City Council on the same day she submitted paperwork to run, Douglas outlined her opposition. School crowding and a lack of public outreach topped her concerns.

“That it has advanced to the point of potential approval by the Council without numerous very public meetings for input is, well, not good governance in my opinion,” Douglas wrote.

Multiple city residents wrote to the city expressing concern that they had not been notified of the project.

City officials have said they and the developer followed public outreach rules, including notifying residents within 1,300 feet of the proposal as well as alerting nearby HOAs and the Peoria Unified School District. They also held a meeting with the West Wing HOA on Dec. 8, where 50 residents attended, city Planning Director Chris Jacques said.

The Republic first wrote about the proposed development in 2018.

Shafer and Douglas have until July 11 to submit their signatures to appear on the November ballot for the Mesquite District seat.

What is The Trailhead?
A rendering of The Trailhead, a 45.5-acre apartment and dining development proposed for the northeast corner of 83rd Avenue and Happy Valley Road in Peoria’s northern Willow District.
The Trailhead is a 45.5-acre development proposed for the northeast corner of 83rd Avenue and Happy Valley Road that would include apartments and a church on one end and shops and restaurants on the other.

Phoenix-based developer The Pederson Group, owned by Jim Pederson is behind the project. Pederson formerly served as chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party and unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate against Sen. Jon Kyl in 2006.

Safeway would anchor the commercial component of The Trailhead, with restaurants like OHSO, La Grande Orange, and The Sicilian Butcher surrounding — though specific restaurants have not yet been confirmed, Gilbert said.

LifePath Church, which already holds services in north Peoria and describes itself as a Bible-centered church, would build a 15,000 square-foot worship center along Happy Valley Road.

A 336-unit apartment complex would be located on the northernmost portion of the property. The apartments, considered mid-range to luxury, would range somewhere between $1,900 and $2,300 monthly, Pederson told The Republic.

The Trailhead would include a hiking preparation area with restrooms and a water bottle filling station.

A rendering of The Trailhead, a 45.5-acre apartment and dining development proposed for the northeast corner of 83rd Avenue and Happy Valley Road in Peoria’s northern Willow District.
Peoria to reimburse $2 million for public improvements, offer impact fee credits
The proposal that will go before the City Council on Tuesday calls for the city to reimburse $2 million of the estimated $3.8 million that The Pederson Group will spend on public improvements.

Half of that city funding would only be paid once the developer met performance goals. Peoria would pay $500,000 once the developer substantially completes “placemaking amenities” such as hiking amenities and $125,000 for every “quality restaurant” that comes, up to four.

The public improvements the developer will pursue include:

Upgrades to 83rd Avenue, West Wing Parkway, and Happy Valley Road.
Regional drainage improvements.
A traffic signal at 79th Avenue and Happy Valley Road.
Water lines.
Design costs for the infrastructure improvements.
The majority, or $1.5 million, of the $2 million in reimbursements would come from a portion of the city’s sales tax collection that is dedicated to economic development and a few other priorities. The remaining $500,000 would come from the city’s general fund operating budget.

The proposal also calls for Peoria to provide transportation impact fee credits. Cities charge developers one-time impact fees to offset the costs they pay to construct public infrastructure needed as a result of the new development. Katie Gregory, deputy city manager, said the reimbursement would cover costs the city would have had to pay for eventually anyway.

And the impact fee credits — typically a mechanism to prevent developers who are building the public infrastructure themselves from paying twice — won’t reduce the impact fee costs entirely, Gregory said, since the developer would only pay for about half the public improvements after the city’s reimbursements.

City and supporters: The best project possible for this piece of land
Project supporters say it would provide a beautiful community gathering space that would capitalize on the already picturesque views of Sunrise Mountain across the street, and the apartments would improve the city’s housing portfolio, which needs more options beyond single family homes that aren’t attainable to all residents.

North Peoria is a rapidly growing area of the city that has seen multiple luxury home developments go up in recent years.

“With the cost of homes in north Peoria, some nice apartments will help (a) young professional live in the area before eventually being able to purchase a home,” Peoria resident Daniel Taft wrote to the city.

The apartments will be mostly one- and two-bedroom units, Gilbert said, so they’ll be less likely to attract families and children, meaning fewer new students at the nearby schools.

Peoria Unified School District spokesperson Danielle Airey said Liberty High School and Frontier Elementary School would be able to accommodate new students from these apartments, though she noted Liberty is at capacity.

Gilbert said the developer would make a one-time $500 donation to Peoria Unified for every apartment that’s leased.

Supporters also were excited at the prospect of high-end restaurants and retailers.

“This area is in desperate need of more places to shop and eat,” wrote West Wing resident Callie Hysell.

Gregory, the deputy city manager, said the project also solves a lot of land-use issues, pointing out that the developer was able to wrangle multiple landowners to make the project possible.

“I think our biggest thing is that right next to this development is our beautiful Sunrise Mountain Preserve,” Gregory said, adding that the restrooms and water bottle filling station coordinates with the future trailhead the city has planned across the street on 83rd Avenue.

“That’s why it’s called the Trailhead Project. We want it where people can come right off the mountain and come into a nice development, get a coffee, you know, refill their water bottles, whatever it is,” she said. “We knew we wanted this to be special.”

Critics question political favors
Critics of the project say they’re concerned over increased traffic and crime as well as the $2 million in reimbursements the city plans to give the developer.

They also point out that the developer’s attorney, Gilbert, has been raising funds for Binsbacher’s mayoral campaign.

In an email obtained by The Republic and confirmed by Gilbert, the attorney asked for “generous” donations between $350 to the $6,500 limit for Binsbacher’s mayoral campaign.

“Bridget and I are very appreciative of your willingness to help,” the email says.

Developers and zoning attorneys regularly donate to city council candidates in the Phoenix area, and both Binsbacher and Jason Beck, the other mayoral candidate, have accepted donations from real estate professionals and developers.

The city’s mayoral race has attracted attention as Binsbacher and Beck look to replace longtime Mayor Cathy Carlat, who is term-limited.

Binsbacher said she had not received donations from Gilbert as of April 14 but that she would accept them if offered because “people contribute because they want to support the right person.”

Peoria Mayoral Candidate Bridget Binsbacher (former Mesquite District Councilmember)
“My vote is not for sale,” she told The Republic.

Gilbert said his fundraising had nothing to do with The Trailhead development, pointing out that Binsbacher would not vote on the proposal since she resigned April 5.

“We supported her because I like her and thought she’s done a good job on the council,” Gilbert said.

He told The Republic he had raised money for other council members in the past but was not currently doing so.

Some critics, including former Arizona State Treasurer Jeff DeWit who resigned his post after Donald Trump nominated him to oversee finances at NASA, say Binsbacher shouldn’t accept the funds since they were raised before she resigned her seat to run for mayor and because she played a role in the project’s outreach.

“This sure looks like the most insider, backroom, you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours deal that I’ve ever seen,” DeWit, a Peoria resident, told The Republic.

“The neighborhood loses, the city loses, and taxpayers lose all so a person running for mayor can get campaign contributions from a big fundraising push by the development team of which the developer stands to make what looks to be tens of millions of dollars or more on the deal,” DeWit said.

Arizona State Treasurer Jeff DeWit in 2016.
Binsbacher said meetings she attended were open to the public, including the Dec. 8 public outreach event with the West Wing HOA.

“From where this project started to where it is today is a result of the public process,” she said. The developer “was open to hearing what people wanted, and … that’s what I demand for my constituents.”

Political figures come out in full force
DeWit said he and other area residents would support Douglas over Shafer in November as a result of The Trailhead.

“There were some meetings with residents and the basic premise was, ‘Who do we have (that could run for the seat)?’ And Diane Douglas lives in West Wing… So we kind of recruited her to do it,” DeWit said. “There’s a whole bunch of people that are going to collect her signatures and get her on the ballot.”

Other political figures, including Legislative District 28 Republican Committee Chairman Lori Bango, are also rallying against the city.

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Bango said she’d work to mobilize the community against council members who approved the project.

“We will keep track of every member who votes YES on this project, and we will vote them out,” Bango wrote in an email to the city obtained by The Republic.

Reach reporter Taylor Seely at tseely@arizonarepublic.com or 480-476-6116. Follow her on Twitter @taylorseely95 or Instagram @taylor.azc.

SOURCE: https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/peoria/2022/04/16/former-superintendent-public-instruction-seeks-vacant-seat-peoria-city-council-after-development-dra/7324445001/

AUTHOR: Taylor Seely

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