Compromise construed as Smoke Tree falls short of Paradise Valley confidence

The Smoke Tree Resort, 7101 E. Lincoln Drive, is eying a major redevelopment, which would reshape the landmark property. (File photo)

Smoke Tree Resort representatives stood before Paradise Valley Town Council May 23 to present the newest rendition of their redevelopment application, which was met with luke-warm encouragement.

Overall, members of Town Council voiced a desire to see the Smoke Tree Resort redeveloped, but a hefty special use permit application that includes 30 resort residential — or condominium — keys ought to be weighed carefully.

Zoning attorney Paul Gilbert’s presentation of the slimmed-down application follows a recommendation of denial by the town’s Planning Commission earlier this year. The Commission voted 4-3 to recommend denial, with Commissioners Daran Wastchak, Thomas Campbell and Jonathan Wainwright dissenting.

The Planning Commission held 10 meetings on the project prior to its denial vote.

Smoke Tree Resort was originally built in 1966 at 7101 E. Lincoln Drive, adjacent to the municipality’s border. In 2018, the legacy resort property changed hands for a reported $10 million, and new ownership is eying a new chapter for the boutique resort.

The original resort, which had been maintained in perpetuity, is now under the guise of Phoenix-based Geneva Holdings. The property is on approximately 5.3 acres, and plans call for a complete rebuild comprised of up to three-story buildings with both rental and residential units.

The project entails 120 traditional hotel guest room keys, 30 resort-residential units, which includes 15 lock-off features available to rent.

On April 3, Town Council discussed the Smoke Tree Resort SUP application during a study session, where numerous questions were posed to town staff.

During the May 23 meeting, Mayor Jerry Bien-Willner noted that many of those questions have not been answered, and the presentation of Smoke Tree’s revised application is a first-blush look at the amended proposal.

An artist’s rendering shows proposed changes to bring the Smoke Tree Resort in to the 21st Century. (Submitted graphic)

Proposed changes

Mr. Gilbert, a co-founder of Beus Gilbert PLLC, presented a number of alterations to Smoke Tree Resort’s application including amended maximum height, reduced rooms and stipulations.

“We believe we’ve presented a project that makes sense in the marketplace, and at the end of this process, we hope to bring forward a project you can vote for and not against,” Mr. Gilbert said.

“We hope there are limited issues. And, basically tonight, we wish to explore how can we get there to get this project approved. You will find us flexible and accommodating.”

Changes made since the May 2018 submittal as a result of Planning Commission work, according to Mr. Gilbert, include:

  • Reduced density;
  • Reduced height;
  • Eliminated balconies;
  • Eliminated lock offs;
  • Increased open space; and
  • Complied with open space criteria on the west and north.

Specifically, the number of units in the proposal has been reduced from 180 to 165, and 15 lock-offs were eliminated on the south side.

Mr. Gilbert says all dwelling units will be part of the resort’s rental program, and no dwellings units will be permitted to be rented independently.

Plans have increased the setback and created a tiered height on the south side of the property.

The height has been agreed to be a maximum of 36 feet with limited areas of mechanical screening up to 42 feet; and there’s an agreement to a maximum number of chimneys, towers and other architectural features up to 45 feet.

The Smoke Tree Resort has residential neighbors to the west, and commercial properties surrounding its other three sides. According to Mr. Gilbert, the proposal calls for greater height and density to the south and east, and provides tiered heights on the west.

Additionally, balconies on the west side facing residential neighbors have been prohibited and there is a 100-foot buffer between the residential property line and the nearest structure, which is limited to 24 feet.

Following Mr. Gilbert’s presentation, a number of local residents spoke on the proposed redevelopment, both for and against the project.

A ‘slippery slope’

For Mr. Bien-Willner, the inclusion of condominiums in the Smoke Tree plan draws concern.

When the new ownership purchased Smoke Tree, Mr. Bien-Willner said he and fellow councilmember Paul Dembow met with the new owners where the prospect of resort residential was brought up.

Jerry Bien-Willner (File photo)

“Councilmember Dembow and I discussed, at that time, the Camelback Inn style of ownership of hotel units as a way to get capital investment was an acceptable regimen to us,” Mr. Bien-Willner explained from the dais.

“Those hotel units are owned by owners, but rented out. A guest there would never know the difference — it’s not full-time, live-in, fully equipped condos. I want to state publicly, that I have not previously supported condo projects in Paradise Valley.”

Mr. Bien-Willner noted he believes condos change the nature of the town, which was incorporated in order to maintain an established 1-acre-per-lot lifestyle, during a time when Phoenix and Scottsdale were booming.

“SUP properties are legislative by this council; get the wrong council up here and we could allow a Wal-Mart in Paradise Valley in an SUP location,” the mayor said, pointing out the flexibility allowed by special use permits. “Is that what we’re charged to do? I don’t think so, but we could.”

Mr. Bien-Willner said he wasn’t prepared to comment on the specific changes presented by Mr. Gilbert, pointing to the council’s previous meeting where a number of questions were posed to town staff to understand how and why the project was out of conformance with certain guidelines.

“One of my main concerns, apart from viewsheds and height, even looking at the reduced numbers, which we appreciate and I appreciate — that’s 25 units on four, four-and-a-half acres,” he said. “Even if you call it five acres, that’s five dwelling units, five people’s homes per acre plus a hotel. We typically allow one home per acre in our town.”

Mr. Bien-Willner called the approval of condominiums a “slippery slope,” stating he previously hasn’t supported the option at other projects including the Five Star Development across the street from Smoke Tree Resort.

Ultimately, Mr. Bien-Willner says he is open to land owners being creative in making an investment, but asking for condominiums on resort properties is not a new trend.

“I do see — and I will tell my colleagues as mayor, we are getting requests — they come to me often. This is not the beginning of a trend, we’re somewhat in the middle of it,” he said. “What appetite does this council have when there are 91 condos being built across the street to put more condos in? To me that puts the seal on that land use. I’ve seen proposals for Doubletree (Ranch Road) and Tatum (Boulevard) to put high intensity; we saw a proposal for Town Triangle.”

Overall, Mr. Bien-Willner says adding to the town’s density in an already dense corridor is an issue.

Paradise Valley Planning Commission held 10 meetings on the Smoke Tree Resort special use permit amendment application before ultimately recommending a denial of the project with a 4-3 vote. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Additional compromise

Councilwoman Ellen Andeen grew up in the Town of Paradise Valley, and says the area of town is special to her.

“I’m very excited to see this revitalized; I want to see something happen,” she said.

“But, I have been very consistent in my messaging saying there’s a reason it was denied 4-3 from the Planning Commission. It was because of the density and the condo project. I would not be able to support a condo project in it is entirety unless we came up with some other compromises as well.”

Overall, she says 25 dwelling units on five acres is “just too dense for me.”

Likewise, Councilwoman Anna Thomasson said she was drawn to the town 25 years ago because of its rural feeling.

“I’m hanging on with my fingernails to that rural feeling. I do feel a responsibility to our residents to keep our low density,” she said. “As we go forward I would ask you to please seriously consider lower heights, less density and hang onto that rural effort.”

Councilman Mark Stanton called the Smoke Tree lot a unique space because of its size, describing a need for creativity and focus to utilize the site in a meaningful way.

“I think the word compromise — and Mr. Gilbert, you did a good job explaining several key points of compromise — I think the town is very hopeful. I can speak for myself and say I’m looking to see a lot of these thoughts formalized in a presentation that we can see in a proposal form.”

Vice Mayor Scott Moore, who is a planner and developer by profession, also mentioned the word compromise noting that the project has a ways to go.

“What I’ve said in the past, and where I still stand today is that whether it’s a private ownership of some of the units that those units are part of rental pool and how those are incorporated in — I still think that’s where the conversation needs to go,” he said.

“When we’re talking about open space requirements, Mr. Gilbert you mentioned this space meets all open space requirements; so far what I’ve seen presented to us and Planning Commission — I’m not sure I see it the same way. I’d need to see a little clarification on that.”

The vice mayor said he sees some further compromise needed on the project’s height.

“What’s been proposed is certainly very dense. There’s still room for more consideration of that density,” he said. “I think working with the neighbors as you have, it’s appreciated. I’d like to see that continue.”

News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be reached by e-mail at or follow her on Twitter at

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