InFocus: Mayor explains why cities need to keep Legislature at bay

Maricopa Mayor Christian Price keeps an eye on what’s going on in Phoenix this time of the year. He must: The Arizona State Legislature is in session.

State leaders can pass laws that either help or handicap municipalities. A big concern for local leaders comes from the unintended consequences of these new laws.

The perfect example is the advancement of House Bill 2674, a piece of legislation referred to as the Affordable Housing Bill.

While it sounded like a noble effort to help alleviate the rising costs of housing, the bill would enable leaders in the Arizona Legislature to set blanket zoning regulations for residential housing in every municipality in the state.

As Price explained, the bill wasn’t just going to send a wrecking ball through local residential zoning codes; it had the potential to cause far more damage.

“It was termed as an affordable housing bill,” Price said. “But in reality, what it did was obliterate all zoning.”
Intended to lower the cost of residential housing, the old rule of unexpected consequences applies, Price said.

“If this bill had passed, any group that came in and said, ‘I’m going to build something called affordable housing’ could do so, and no undue burden could be placed on them,” Price explained.

The way the law was written, affordable housing could take precedence over the state’s water management regulations, he said. And it could go beyond that.

“If they wanted to put up a seven-story building right by the Ak-Chin Indian Community’s airport, which is right in their flight plan and would make it an immediate danger to the FAA, they could.”

Moreover, Price believed the legislation could stunt the city’s commercial growth.

“We have some really cool commercial projects ready to come out of the ground,” Price said. “But we have saved them as commercial areas for a reason, because of their location.”

Such a law would enable a developer to “swoop in” and buy a piece of land in the middle of a commercial area for a five-story, affordable housing complex that would “destroy the whole rest of the thing,” according to Price.

“They can do it” under such a measure, he said.

Price said the magic words in the bill were “undue burden.”

Maricopa Mayor Christian Price speaks with InMaricopa’s Justin Griffin. [Bryan Mordt]
“To heck with the economic development you were trying to get done,” Price said. “And to heck with all the stores and the master plan that you created. You cannot put any undue burden on the developers.”
The bill, while not dead, isn’t likely to move this year, thanks to a concerted effort by local lawmakers and citizens alike.

“We threw up a stink and it came from everybody,” Price said. “It came from members of the public … many thanks to them, for all the folks that wrote to their legislators, that called them. Their phones were ringing off the hook and under no uncertain terms, that committee knew where people stood.”

Sponsors of the legislation realized quickly it wasn’t going anywhere.

But House Bill 2674, or something like it, will happen in the next few years, according to Price. He said the sponsors will enlist the help of a group of stakeholders, including the Arizona League of Cities and Towns, to get it passed.

“We know that bill is inevitable,” Price said. “We know that bill is coming in some fashion at some point in the next five years.”

Before the latest version of the bill came out, Price said leaders of cities across the state reached out to offer concessions for a bill that that wouldn’t harm municipalities.

“Let’s work on the very best bill we can design together,” Price said of the message to legislators. “And they (the sponsors) said that’s a great idea. And guess what they did? They dropped the bill in the hopper and never talked to us.”

The sponsors came back to the table and now the measure has been converted into a striker bill, meaning all the language has been stricken and contains no language whatsoever. But striker bills retain all the legislative progress made to get to committees. With the addition of new language, it can pass later with fewer legislative steps.

“We’re trying to be very helpful and trying to be very gracious and very outreaching,” Price said. “We told them there’s a need for this, but we don’t want you to write something that’s so detrimental, that destroys our ability to zone.”

Tit for tat?

Also in this session, the State Legislature put forth House Bill 2099, which would limit the fees the Arizona League of Cities and Towns could charge its members.

“The last time I checked, this was a conservative legislature and conservatives typically believe in lesser government and they typically believe in not sticking their head into the nature of private entities.

“There’s no mandate that a city has to join,” Price said.

Price explained the role of the Arizona League of Cities and Towns.

“We protect two things, as a league of Arizona cities and towns,” he said. “We protect Arizona’s state shared revenues, and we protect local control. Those are really important to us.”

League members seek to protect those priorities from legislative interference.

“Every time we turn around,” he lamented, “they’re chipping it away from us.”

To Price, the conservative legislature in the last few years has been a little too productive.

“This year, 1,532 bills have dropped,” Price said. “That’s 1,532 new laws that Arizona feels that you need to live by. I don’t know about you, but I think we have enough laws on the book, and I don’t know why we need that many more bills. Multiply that number times a decade.”

Laws are still needed, however

Price isn’t interested in doing away with laws. He sees the value in careful consideration of new measures.

One example is a new code recently considered by the city to prevent street dumping.

For example, when some homeowners buy a load of rocks to landscape their yard, and the contractor may not be so courteous while unloading the materials, a pile of rocks ends up in the road that could potentially block drainage inlets and lead to flood damage.

“Well, you’ve got to remember the street is a public thoroughfare,” Price said. “It’s owned by all the taxpayers. It’s not owned by me even though it’s in front of my house, so if the dump truck that dumps that load and scratches the road and it has to be fixed, is it fair that taxpayers have to pay for that?”

Still, the city doesn’t want to penalize residents who want to change rock or put grass in their yards.

So, Price pointed out, a solution was needed that didn’t penalize homeowners but also didn’t put other people’s property at risk.“We have a flood control problem,” he noted. “It doesn’t rain here that often but when it does, it runs. And when it runs, those streets are specifically designed to carry that water to the end of the road and into a retention basin away from your home.”

Price went on to say if those gutters and drainage ditches are full of dirt and rock, homes could be in jeopardy. The laws are still being considered.

Growth must be managed

While the exponential growth in Maricopa may seem like it’s strictly a local issue, laws in place at the state level can tie local officials’ hands.

“Every day, I get people that ask me, ‘Christian, why can’t you stop building until we have better road infrastructure?’ Price said. “You know, in a perfect world, that would make a lot of sense, right?

“If I suddenly issue that edict or moratorium, you know what’s going to happen? The state legislature’s going to come down on us like a ton of bricks. They’re going to issue a 1270 complaint.”

Such a complaint, in effect, would accuse the city of violating state laws and request the state attorney general investigate the City of Maricopa, he explained.

Halting building permits without reasonable cause — no more development until the infrastructure keeps up, for example — isn’t practical in the eyes of the state.

“There’s all kinds of legal precedent on this,” said Price, adding the fallout from being sued by the state could potentially be devastating.

“We’d lose half our state-shared revenue and the ability to operate the city,” he said. “That means your police are all let go, your fire department are all let go. Parks are all shut down because we won’t be able to operate a city.”

Price said the whole idea that roads must be built before development can occur has been tried before, and with little success. There are practical reasons roads aren’t built pre-emptively.

During the real estate bust in Maricopa during the Great Recession in 2007-09, many developers had already built roads through developments before they went broke and had to abandon their projects.

“The roadways were in,” Price said. “The curb and gutter was in, but they didn’t have the houses. None of the foundations were there. But the roads were in. Do you know that because those roads sat there in the sun without any maintenance or any cars driving over them for 10 years that they had to all be redone? Completely redone.”

Price explained traffic helps maintain roads. “The cars leak oil. Cars spill gas,” Price said, pointing out that the asphalt contains petroleum products.

Price said building a road that might sit for a few years before a development can catch up could be a costly proposition.

“If you let it sit and you leave it, it actually has to be rebuilt and it costs more,” Price said. “People do not understand how expensive roadways are.”

This story was first published in the April edition of InMaricopa magazine.

Christian Price on Apartments – YouTube


AUTHOR: Justin Griffin

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