Hillside removal requests raise questions at Paradise Valley Town Hall

Paradise Valley Town Council discussed hillside code on April 12. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Two residential requests to be removed from the local hillside designation drove the Paradise Valley Town Council down memory lane as local figure heads continue to debate an established decision-making process that appears to be based on a visual look at the mountainsides.

Embedded within the bases of both Camelback and Mummy mountains, Paradise Valley development officials have classified a number of lots to follow a hillside ordinance — a set of rules and regulations that minimizes the impact to the natural beauty.

On Thursday, April 12, two homeowner requests to leave the hillside designation led the town council into a lengthy conversation about the past workings of the hillside code. The properties at 6001 N. 45th St. and 4554 E. McDonald Drive are under the municipality’s hillside designation but have an average lot slope of under 10 percent, which frees them from being within the zoning ordinance.

Turns out the lots are relatively flat, town officials say, which begs the question: why were these designated a hillside lot in the first place?

For several months Paradise Valley Town Council and staff have been working to update the hillside code. Mayor Michael Collins says the residential requests to be removed from hillside brought up some questions.

“For how this works, the hillside review, there’s some question given all the time we’re spending on hillside code update and safety,” Mr. Collins said at the onset of the discussion.

“I had the request to maybe, in addition to site specific information, refresh us on what has been the process of removing these homes from hillside.”

Through a mostly visual approach, the hillside map was drafted many years ago, Community Development Director Eva Cutro says.

“When the hillside map was drafted we didn’t have anybody going out and doing slope analysis or anything like that. It really was a drive-around, visual look at the town,” Ms. Cutro said.

Town Attorney Andrew Miller says from what he knows historically, former Town Engineer Bill Mead and former Paradise Valley councilwoman and Mayor Joan Lincoln drove around the town together and began mapping out lots to fall under the hillside designation.

“I don’t think they had a budget to hire a professional to do an analysis at that time,” Mr. Miller said.

The town council discussed the hillside removal designation in length April 12, but tabled the hillside code update conversation, at Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive.

(Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Historic hillside heyday

The town’s hillside development regulations outline provisions to regulate the intensity of development, preserve and protect the hillside environment; provide for the safety and welfare of the town and its residents; and establish rules and procedures for review by the Hillside Building Committee.

Paradise Valley Community Development Director Eva Cutro

“There were some lots, like this one, that are nowhere near a 10 percent slope but at that time, they looked like they might be,” Ms. Cutro said of the hillside determination.

“There was no analysis done. We do have lots that have hillside designation on them that don’t meet any of the hillside criteria and we do believe this is one of those lots.”

Town officials say there is no formal process to remove lots from the hillside zoning ordinance, but for the past couple of years a method of working with town staff has been internally implemented. Through the hillside code updates, town officials hope to codify their process for hillside designation removal.

Officials say homes are designated as a hillside property if the lot slope and building pad are greater than 10 percent.

“There is no formal process described to remove lots from our current hillside zoning ordinance,” Engineering Services Analyst Jeremy Knapp said during the town council meeting.

“Past practice has been for hillside designation removal the applicant works with staff to determine lot slope and building pad slope; staff makes a recommendation to the Hillside Building Committee and the hillside committee votes and makes a recommendation to town council.”

Mr. Knapp says in the past four years two properties have been removed from the hillside designation through that process.

Homes that are designated as a hillside property have different development regulations to follow, including no walls except for pools — the catalyst for one homeowner’s request.

“One of the main reasons for the request to remove it from the hillside designation because the hillside code doesn’t allow for walls and fences other than walls and fences for a pool or for screening mechanical equipment,” Mr. Knapp said, noting the homeowner is seeking to build a wall along McDonald Drive to screen the property.

Mr. Knapp says that based on comments he has read, potential homeowners pass on certain lots if they’re considered a hillside lot.

Paradise Valley Town Hall is at 6401 E. Lincoln Drive. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Council observations

For the Paradise Valley Town Council, the individual residential requests weren’t troublesome but the overall hillside designation raises questions.

Scott Moore

Councilman Scott Moore asked about surrounding homes that are on the hillside map, but appear to have non-hillside code traits.

“It seems like those on the streets that already have rear yards, that have been fenced in, returns put in, solid walls — were those approved?” He asked town staff.

Town Planner George Burton says that some homes and their lots have been grandfathered in to the community if it was built prior to hillside code.

Councilwoman Julie Pace noted that she didn’t have questions on the two homes who were asking to leave the hillside group, but noted there is a concern on what the town’s process is.

“It sounds like there’s a little bit of a concern that we’ve got a gap in our system of what to do for hillside removal,” Ms. Pace said.

“Planning Commissioner John Wainwright, his thought is these two lots should have never been in hillside in the first place. We’ve got to think about what’s driving this need to move things from hillside, or why are some things captured in hillside if they’re less than 10 percent?”

Town officials believe about 13 percent of the town’s homes are in the hillside group, but have no idea how many of those homes don’t meet the requirements.

The planning and engineering staff say they don’t initiate the hillside designation removal, and the topic is only brought up if an applicant comes in to speak with staff.

“We surprise them with such that there is that avenue,” Mr. Burton said.

Michael Collins

Mr. Collins floated the idea of removing all hillside designations, but Ms. Cutro says town staff hasn’t looked at that because so many of the lots are already developed.

“Many of those lots are already developed and removing them from hillside might make them nonconforming,” she said.

“So, we leave it up to the applicant. If they’re currently in the hillside zone they may stay in the hillside. If they wish to get out, if they’re over a 10 percent slope it makes no sense for them to come out because they wouldn’t be able to build a normal-sized house.”

Mr. Burton noted that some homeowners see being within hillside as a positive aspect, as it allows them to build their home to a greater height.

“I have concerns with hillside, we’re talking about enacting additional regulation for hillside and having walls that are going to be standing up,” Councilman Paul Dembow said during the meeting.

“I can see on the mountain you have a whole bunch of houses that are on hillside, and one that’s not, and how out of place that wall would look as you’re looking up to the mountain. I have some real concerns about approving that.”

Mr. Miller pointed out some homes technically do have a slope of less than 10 percent, but is on a ledge so it should remain designated as hillside.

“I’ve mentioned to Bill Mead many times over the years, you might want to take the time and do that professional analysis to really look at that map and see what should be hillside and what should not be,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s a pretty expensive undertaking, so I think the town has just said ‘let’s take cases as they come.’”

Mr. Miller noted that with the few homes who have asked to be removed from hillside over the years, it appears the code has served its purpose.

“I think the process that’s in place today works well,” Mr. Moore said. “I’ve seen it work in the past with the Planning Commission take a look at each individual lot. It wouldn’t be bad for us to put together some sort of check list that may or may not be overlooked.”

The town council ultimately voted 7-0 on both action items.

“The one comment I’d like to make is that these do need to be looked at on a case by case basis, and my support of this and the last is based on their position along McDonald Drive,” Mr. Collins said.

News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be reached by e-mail at mrosequist@newszap.com or follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Mrosequist_

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