Renderings for the Desert Discovery Center, now Desert EDGE, show a smaller footprint and reduced cost.
Scottsdale elected leaders haven’t yet decided whether to send the divisive Desert EDGE project to a public vote, but they directed staff to explore ballot language should the council choose to go that route. Or should a lawsuit that residents filed earlier this week force the issue to the polls.
Desert EDGE, previously called the Desert Discovery Center or DDC, is proposed as a desert-appreciation center in the city’s beloved McDowell Sonoran Preserve, some 30,000 acres that voters taxed themselves to acquire over the past 23 years.
Talk of a center to educate and help visitors enjoy the desert has been kicked around for years. A proposal unveiled this summer calls for a $61.2 million center near the preserve’s Gateway Trailhead.
But residents have become entrenched for and against the plan.
“I have never seen the city more torn apart in any other way. I am concerned about the damage that has already happened to our city,” Mayor Jim Lane said Tuesday as the Scottsdale City Council held its first public meeting on the plans unveiled in late July.
“We need to consider how to bring this city together,” the mayor said.
He called on staff to explore potential ballot language if the matter went to a public vote.
“Make a clear unambiguous vote … on this issue on whether to build it or not to build it,” Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield urged.
She warned there would be a cost “if we don’t allow (residents) to be heard.”
But not everyone agrees it should go that route.
Councilwoman Linda Milhaven, an “enthusiastic advocate” of the EDGE, shot back with a warning of her own that a vote would set a “really dangerous public precedent and bad policy.”
Milhaven and Councilwoman Virgina Korte said residents could pursue a public vote through a citizens referendum or initiative if they wish to do so,but reminded the council that it has the authority to move the project along without a vote.
Allowing a vote, simply because the public asks for it, will set a dangerous model for future policy-making, Milhaven said.
“The elegance and eloquence of our democracy is that we have checks and balances,” Milhaven said. “I will not support any language that usurps the power of democracy.”
“If folks here who demand a vote are right that the majority wants a vote, then they should have no trouble collecting the signatures,” Milhaven said.
City staff is expected to report back to the council on possible ballot language Nov. 6, as well as other details related to financing the project.
READ MORE: What to know about Scottsdale’s Desert EDGE
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McDowell Sonoran Conservancy wants a public vote
The board of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, a non-profit with hundreds of volunteers who offer guided hikes and support the preserve, issued a statement on Monday outlining its concerns and calling for a public vote.
“Desert EDGE will not be successful without widespread community support,” the statement reads. “Even if all of the above issues are satisfactorily addressed, the Conservancy believes a public vote on the Desert EDGE Proposal would then be needed to demonstrate that widespread community support for the Desert EDGE.”
The conservancy details reasons for its opposition:
- No preserve tax dollars should be considered to build Desert EDGE before all future funds for the expansion, care, maintenance and capital needs of the preserve are secured.
- As the owner of Desert EDGE, the city would be responsible for operating shortfalls. If it becomes a financial burden, this could threaten the preserve’s financial sustainability. The city should minimize the risk by demanding that the Desert EDGE proposal show a much higher level of operating funding and reserves.
- The preserve is not a park; it’s a preserve that prohibits most commercial activities and should not allow the commercial aspects proposed at Desert EDGE.
- Desert EDGE sets a dangerous precedent for future development in the preserve.
Where the lawsuit stands
Two citizen groups, Protect Our Preserve and NO DDC, coalesced to oppose the project. The groups filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court on Monday, asking a judge to order the city to stop spending money on the project until it goes to a public vote.
“It is truly unfortunate when citizens are forced to band together to sue their own City to enforce basic rights. Our City Charter, our local version of our Constitution, was amended in 1999 to assure that major projects to be built upon the McDowell Sonoran Preserve could only be built if Voters approved the proposed construction,” the groups said in a statement.
A hearing on the matter is expected in October.
What advocates say about a public vote
Architect John Sather addressed not only the council during his presentation, but also acknowledged the more than 100 residents who filled the standing-room only council chambers Tuesday.
“We have passionately poured ourselves over this project,” Sather said, adding that the new proposal came as a direct result of community input.
In the span of 18 months, the group had an open invitation to their offices to discuss the center. “Many of you took us up on that,” Sather said.
The group also attended various club and organization meetings and interviewed residents hiking at Gateway trails to “understand their point of views.”
“It was always our point to be respectful of those who did not want the DDC. We understood that from the beginning,” Sather said.
Yet, he said, the DDC leaders were asked to do a job.
“You hired us to do a building at the Gateway. That is what my contract said … so we passionately collaborated with all.”
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