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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Village Planning Committee Helping Guide Development in Laveen

Ricardo Cortazar

Richard Cortazar

If there is one thing that Laveen residents and community leaders seem to agree about, it’s the importance of how the rural community will develop over the next 10 years and what type of residential communities, businesses and services for residents will be needed to maintain a high quality of life.

The direction of those changes lies largely in the hands of city planners, whose view of what rural life in suburban Laveen Village may not match that of longtime residents who have watched the dairy farms and cotton fields disappear under a canopy of red-tiled roofs and national chain stores.

Meshing residents’ expectations with city perspectives fall to the Laveen Village Planning Committee, according to Marc Thornton, a long-range planner with the City of Phoenix. The committee, like that of all the city’s 15 villages, is made up of community members appointed for two-year terms by the city councilmembers representing their village, as well as two positions allocated for appointment by the mayor.

Committees range in number up to a maximum of 21 members, with most between 15 and 21 members. Laveen’s group has a maximum of 17 members with three appointment vacancies, one each for Mayor Greg Stanton, Councilman Michael Nowakowski, D7 and Vice Mayor and Councilwoman Kate Gallego, D8.

“The planning committee is the grassroots sounding board for both the developers and the city,” Thornton said. “The committee members know what’s happening in their community; they are our eyes and ears in the community because it’s where they live.”

The city began the process of creating Village Planning Committees in 1985 – when Laveen was nearly 85 percent county land and under the jurisdiction of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. The city approved in 1986 the formation of planning committees throughout the city, with Laveen becoming the 14th such board when it was created in 1999. Rio Vista became the 15th village in 2002.

At about the same time in the late 1990s, many farmers and agricultural concerns began cashing in on the high land values and to ensure services to the exploding housing boom, developers sought annexation by the City of Phoenix. Thornton said that today about 45 percent of Laveen is county land while the rest is within the City of Phoenix.

As a result of the changes and the duality of a community split between county and city land, residents formed their own independent nonprofit group, Laveen Citizens for Responsible Development. While the LCRD is not a government body, it often is a sounding board for developers seeking city planning approval. Maricopa County meanwhile, directs all its development projects to the Laveen Village Planning Committee for review.

These two entities have considerable influence on what development looks like in Laveen, from density to architectural style.

In the past six months, there have been several new faces join the Laveen Village Planning Committee while some of the longer-serving members left for a variety of reasons, including being asked to step down in order for a new person to be appointed, moving out of state, or simply having their term expire and electing to not continue in the job.

SMDN reached out to current members to ask what drove them to become involved as a member of the board and to ask what they consider the most pressing concern facing Laveen. Below are summaries of what those who responded had to say.

There were many common threads, with the majority of board members noting that guiding development and maintaining a rural atmosphere are an important aspect of their jobs on the board. Recent events also influenced some interviews with several board members referring to a stabbing April 19 in Cesar Chavez Park that resulted in the death of an 18-year-old boy. At press time police were still investigating the altercation that resulted in two high school students being stabbed. A community meeting on April 30 sparked discussion about how to provide activities for area youth.

For the committee members who did not respond to requests for an interview, their names and term information are provided.

Thornton noted that all members serve at the discretion of the council members and the mayor. He also said that it is not uncommon for people to be appointed to partial terms or to continue serving past their term’s expiration date.

Current Laveen Village Planning Committee members are listed alphabetically:

David Adame

District 7

Term expires 11/19/2017

Robert Branscomb

District 7

Term expires 11/19/16

Branscomb, who works for American Family Insurance, has lived in Laveen since 2007. His sister and mother also are residents. The Indiana native previously lived in Los Angeles. “In L.A. you can drive from city to city and you never know where the boundary is. Laveen reminds me of Indiana — open fields, country and suburban feel. I like driving down Baseline by the farmland and seeing the downtown skyline. Laveen is the best of the worlds. It’s a community feel. I got involved because I want to maintain this feel,” he said.

“I want to make sure Laveen keeps this identity with activities like the (Laveen Community) Parade and the (Laveen Pit) Barbecue. “

Branscomb said there are several concerns he hopes to help address while serving, including guiding the right choice in bringing businesses to the community and more activities for the village’s growing youth population.

“I also want to be sure we have the businesses that provide the right services,”   Branscomb said. He noted, as did other committee members in their interviews, that when Laveen residents drive to Tolleson or Tempe or other nearby cities to purchase something they can’t get at home, the tax dollars wind up in a different municipality’s bank account. “Those dollars are not being circulated in our community.”

He considers development and how it happens as a primary concern. “I think the most pressing thing for me is not having builders come and try to fill up every open spot,” he said.
“I think that is a challenge for the committee. We want to keep open space but we don’t want to discourage people or businesses from enjoying our community. That’s my challenge to keep the balance.”

Ricardo Cortazar

District 7

Term expires 11/19/17

Cortazar is serving as chairman of the Laveen Village Planning Committee. He has lived in Laveen since 2005, and joined the board in September 2015 when he was appointed by Nowakowski. His motivation for being involved is straightforward. “I live here so anything that happens affects my community and that is what gets brought to the planning committee. I am a real estate broker by trade, so it’s better to know ahead of time what is happening.”

He cites several issues facing Laveen, including public safety, upcoming development and a high percentage of rental properties in some Laveen neighborhoods, as well as his worry that services are falling behind the rate of development in Laveen. “As for public services, we don’t get all the services we should and the public safety is a big one. There are a limited number of patrol officers. Public safety is something we hear a lot about.”

Cortazar’s primary focus is making sure the community gets involved in upcoming development projects to ensure their voices are heard. “It’s important that people come to the meetings and get the word out,” he said.

His position is that when developers come into Laveen, many will seek higher density projects to net the financial reward. “For many, it seems more economical to get more house. As developers get confirmed and their projects approved, they want to build bigger houses on smaller lots.”

He says community involvement and the committee are key to insuring over development doesn’t happen. “Lower density housing means people take into consideration their neighbors. We want to live here and have a good quality of life.”

Wendy Ensminger

District 8

11/19/17

Ensminger has served on the board for several years, first being appointed by Nowakowski then becoming part of Gallego’s District 8 under redistricting in 2012. Gallego reappointed her in December for another term. She also is a member of the LCRD.

Ensminger also is heavily involved in the Laveen community as an active Block Watch advocate and participant as well as president of the Laveen Association of HOAS. She said she added the Planning Committee to her multiple community efforts because she wants to have a role in the area’s future.

“I want to have a say in how Laveen changes,” Ensminger said. “I want to be involved with that. I just don’t want developers to come in and saying willy-nilly that ‘I am going to change the General Plan just because of the money’. They’re in for the buck and then they walk away,” she said of some outside investors who persuade the city to approve their plans, but then don’t have any long-term commitment to the community.

“I would like to see them follow the General Plan. We need voices that will hold developers accountable.”

Her biggest concern: “The challenge is going to be the (South Mountain Freeway) coming and getting good quality businesses to come in. We need things like Sprouts and Trader Joe’s, a Best Buy and Barnes & Noble. We need quality businesses to keep the tax dollars in our community rather than spending the money in Tolleson.”

Gary Flunoy

Mayor appointee

Term expired 11/19/15

Tonya Glass

District 8

Term expired 11/19/2015

Glass, who has lived in Laveen since 2008, has been serving on the board for about three years. When she first joined, Glass said she was seated next to former committee member Phil Hertel, a longtime resident and previously the longest-serving member of the committee. She said his guidance quickly got her up to speed on issues facing Laveen. “My seat was next to Phil, and he mentored me. I really miss serving with him.”

She recently left her job in the Maricopa County Department of Transportation and has spent 21 years in government service jobs. Serving on the Village Planning Committee is in an extension of that life-long dedication to community and serving.

“I feel like I am anchored here in the community, but I try to stay out of cliques,” Glass said. “We have more important issues to resolve here in Laveen. I hope to bring a different voice to the table. Laveen is a very diverse community and we need to reflect all those voices.”

Her primary concerns for the Laveen community include opportunities for children and youth, upcoming development tied to the construction and completion of the South Mountain Freeway, and getting more Laveen residents involved.

“These developers have been sitting on some of these parcels for forever. Laveen is going to change once the boom happens. We need to manage that growth and we want to make this the kind of community like we grew up in.”

Jon KimotoKimoto

District 8

Term expired 11/19/15

Kimoto has been a member of the Laveen Village Planning Committee member for six years and a Laveen resident since 1985. He also is a longtime member of the LCRD.

Kimoto said that he has been a participant in the city’s planning process since 1985, when he first moved to the area and got involved due to the discussion on where the South Mountain Freeway would be located. The freeway received final approval last year and is expected to be completed by 2019, running roughly along 61st Avenue to connect Interstate 10 to the north of Laveen with the Loop 202 near Awhatukee on the southern end.

Also in the 1980s, Kimoto said he helped in the effort to stop a prison proposed by then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt being built in the Laveen area. He joined the LCRD in 2002. His background before retiring was as an architect and planner for the City of Tempe and in private practice.

“I’ve always believed that with my special training – technical and professional — it was my obligation to at least be involved in the community planning and development effort to make Laveen the best quality community we could. It’s more of a social calling to remain committed to making a positive difference in how Laveen develops,” Kimoto explained.

Kimoto says he believes quality development remains the area’s biggest concern and that he is dedicated to seeing that happens. “I think that the highest priority is to maintain the quality of development as we approach the next level of development here in Laveen – not try to cram something into every niche,” Kimoto said earlier this year.

He also is a vocal supporter of keeping to the city’s General Plan, adopted in 1997, which calls for Laveen to have lower density housing and multiple areas of open space to retain the rural atmosphere that reflects the community’s agricultural heritage.

“Unless new developers have a darned good reason for increasing the density over what in current plans, they should adhere to the land-use plans,” Kimoto has said. “That’s where the battle lines are going to be drawn. That’s where it comes back to building a quality community.”

Judith Mercado

District 8

Term expires 11/19/16

John Mockus

District 8

Term expires 11/19/16

Mockus moved to Laveen eight years ago from Chicago, where he grew up and spent most of his life. The retired electrician joined the board last fall when Gallego sought him out after the success of his Neighbors Helping Neighbors program.

“I started a block watch called Neighbors Helping Neighbors that has grown over time. It started with 40 people in our driveway,” Mockus said. “I now have over 300 people on my email list.”

He said the development that will take shape over the next few years prompted him to get involved with the Village Planning Committee. “I didn’t really want to spread myself too thin, but I remembered I was at LA-HOA meeting and I didn’t really realize just what impact the board could have. With the (Loop) 202 coming in, it seemed like it was somewhere where I would be able to express myself.”

When Gallego asked him to consider the position, Mockus said he was blunt. “I told her that I’m very opinionated. If you’re looking for someone who’s just going to go along and say yes, then you’ve got the wrong person. I express myself … that’s how I am.”

He is the father of a 13-year-old and one of his priorities is youth in the community. “Right now the primary issue in Laveen is basically is things for kids to do, like recreational opportunities. I was born and raised in Chicago and all the schools had property where the kids could use the basketball courts, the swings. I was stunned to see that out here, all the stuff is locked up.”

Mockus said the key is finding a way to use the current community resources in a way that the properties are taken care of, but that the kids have a place to go.

“My hope of being on the board is to keep Laveen pedestrian friendly and family friendly. And, I want businesses that reflect the uniqueness of Laveen. The only four-story building we have is the school (Heritage High). We’re an oasis in an asphalt jungle.”

He also emphasized that he believes anyone serving on the committee or in similar roles for the city should have easily accessible telephone number and email addresses. “If you want to serve then the community should have access to you reach out to you with questions.”

Edward Olaya

District 8

Term expires 11/19/16

Carlos Ortega

District 8

Term expired 11/19/14

Diane Pruetz

District 7

Term expires 11/19/17

Jennifer Rouse

District 7

Term expires 11/19/16

Rouse joined the planning committee in January. She has lived in Laveen since 2006 and previously worked in business services for the Maricopa County Community Colleges, and banks. She got involved with the community immediately upon moving here when there was a burning car in her neighborhood and the development was so new the fire department had a difficult time finding their road. “I told my husband, we need to start a block watch. My husband was the first block watch leader here in Laveen and I took it over about a year or more later.”

Joining the planning committee came about because “I realized it was an area that I needed to know more about in our community. I had been attending some of the meetings, but I didn’t see a lot of people I knew from my other areas of volunteering. I wanted to learn more.”

For Rouse, the primary concern in Laveen “besides growth” is the community’s youth.

“It’s all related to youth and development because it impacts opportunities for our children. There has been a lot of the concern recently, especially Saturday, that there is not an opportunity for children. Not just teens, but younger children who need more opportunities for activities.”

“I realized I wanted to be more involved in making the changes. One of the top priorities when we first moved here, we really wanted to address safety.”

“I think we rely too often for others to speak for us.”

She also is president of the Laveen Community Council, which organizes the annual Laveen Pit Barbecue with community volunteers and local business sponsorships and is a member of the LCRD.

Phillip Wooley

District 8

Term expires 11/19/16

Wooley, principal at Betty Fairfax High School, has lived in Laveen since 2001 but grew up in nearby West Phoenix and spent a lot of time doing outdoor activities in Laveen. He is a founding member of the LCRD and continues to be an active member of the group.

This is his second time serving on the Laveen Village Planning Committee. He first served in the early 2000s but was re-appointed in August by Gallego. “During my first stint there was nothing out here. There were maybe two neighborhoods,” Wooley said. “There were only a handful of stores.”

The housing boom had just moved into Laveen and businesses were starting to follow. “I wanted to be involved in the community and to be able to have a say-so on what was going on,” he said.

“My second stint, we have a ton of development planned – there’s going to be a shopping mall across the street from the school where I am the principal – I want to maybe have some input on how we can co-exist as good neighbors.”

His number one concern is “planning responsibly. Because of the growth, it’s easy just to have investors come in and have no investment other than financial but no social investment into what they’re doing. We need to be responsible with how Laveen is being and will be developed, both residentially and commercially.”

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