New Paradise Valley Hillside building rules meant to improve standards, transparency

The picturesque landscape that is the Town of Paradise is something the hillside development regulations were created to protect. (File photo)

Anticipated safety provisions to the Paradise Valley Hillside Code updates appear to appease both safety concerns and marketplace trends, a member of the local building community says.

A collective of elected leaders, municipal engineering staff and local building experts agree anticipated changes to Hillside construction guidelines will enhance both safety standards and notification requirements as building projects commence.

“They did reach out to me and a few other builders and I got very involved,” said Rod Cullum of Cullum Homes, a respected luxury homebuilder and Town of Paradise Valley resident. “It started out with a pretty broad scope of which a list from the council that wasn’t grounded in best building practices. But we worked with them to accomplish addressing the real concerns vs. maybe the perceived concerns.”

Hillside lots within the Town of Paradise Valley are those areas with a slope of 10 percent or greater, or designated as Hillside by town code.

A view of Paradise Valley Town Council at Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

According to town officials, the ongoing Hillside update dates back to 2015, where it was re-emphasized and included in the 2016 Town Council Quality of Life Initiatives. As part of that effort, a community conversation was held in April 2016 where safety was a central theme.

Throughout 2017, the Planning Commission worked on a Hillside code update, ultimately forwarding the draft to town council with a 5-1 recommendation vote.

At the onset of the effort and thus far during the municipal maturation process, Mr. Cullum offered the working group — a group of elected leaders, town staff and building experts — insights into the ins and outs of the Hillside construction process.

A major driving force for town leaders: safety and notification to neighboring residents when Hillside development is considered.

“We tried to get to an ordinance that would be fair and equitable,” he said. “The challenge they really had is one based in reality and one that was based in theory. We took the theory side of it and turned into what can be modified and executed by the building community.”

Paradise Valley Town Manager Kevin Burke says a pre-application process will be introduced to when a Hillside development is set to occur.

Kevin Burke

“We borrowed a concept from another part of our code, which is the Statement of Direction, where we have a pre-application process,” he said. “The other point is to use the pre-application as a notice of the safety improvement plan.”

Two points of interest within the safety plan, Mr. Burke says, are the formal definition of boulder diameter and a comprehensive update to how blasting would be conducted.

“Maybe our blasting ordinance was out of date. After that review, we believe we have the most comprehensive blasting ordinance,” he said. “What we didn’t have in our code is that the inspector be present at the time of the blast.”

Mr. Burke explains boulders one year following approval of new Hillside code amendments a review of how the changes impact municipal and marketplace operations will be conducted. Also, a boulder is now formally defined as a rock 36 inches in diameter.

Best building practices

The best building practices are good for all involved — the property owner, the homebuilder and the neighbor — according to Mr. Cullum.

“In theory, best building practices would protect yourself and the neighbors,” he explained pointing out building on Hillside lots is not a novice enterprise.

A view of the Cullum Homes custom build at The Village at Mountain Shadows in the Town of Paradise Valley. (Submitted photo)

“By and large it is what we would do already, and it is what the best builders in town would do anyways. We would always do a refraction study and seismology report. And a boulder rolling down? That has never happened. You have more of a likelihood of it happening during a rain storm.”

Mr. Cullum says Paradise Valley Hillside development is of the most sturdy order.

“Most of your Hillside homes are some of your better-built homes by who already have experience in providing best practices — that is why we haven’t had a catastrophic situation in town.”

Mr. Cullum says anticipated updates to the Paradise Valley Hillside Building Code are ones based in best practices and reality.

“The safety plan is a good additive process to the Hillside program that allows the neighbors a chance to express their concerns and to have a vehicle that protects everyone’s property rights,” he said. “At least there is now a framework and the framework is now grounded in reality and not emotion.”

A joint effort

Paradise Valley Councilwoman Julie Pace says she is pleased with the outcomes of the new safety provisions to be inserted in the Hillside code.

“Our town council, staff, and legal (team) have worked very hard to develop a new safety ordinance and update the town’s blasting code,” she said.

Julie Pace

“We had a gap in the process and the new safety ordinance provides structure to address legitimate safety items. We are implementing a fair process that is understandable and practical.”

Ms. Pace explains changes to the Hillside code include the introduction of the Hillside Construction Safety Improvement Plan.

“The SIP identifies the types of geo technical and other professional reports that the applicant may be asked to provide the Town Engineer for the town’s own due diligence in approving building plans,” she said. “We added a pre-application meeting to assist in identifying what is required so that applicants and their professionals can meet with the Town Engineer at the outset, identify what is needed, and plan accordingly.”

A key piece for Ms. Pace is the now public process for neighbors to receive registered professional engineered reports.

“Previously our town did not have a public process to receive registered professional engineered reports, except for a three minute public comment, which was not well-suited for these types of technical reports,” she said. “The purpose of the SIP is to improve safety at the property and in the surrounding area through a technical review of various items to reduce the negative impacts of construction activities by mitigating potential civil engineering infrastructure failure, subsurface or hillside seismic damage that may result in landslides, falling boulders, subsurface or surface erosion, and subsurface water erosion created by seismic cracks or fissures.”

Several public meetings later, Ms. Pace says, the final product is legal and logical.

“I also asked for volunteers from our building and engineering community to meet and discuss the draft of the safety standard to make sure we were hearing all voices and wanted to integrate the building community’s suggestions so that we had a solid and realistic safety ordinance,” she said.

“Councilmember Scott Moore and I want to thank Rod Cullum, Tony Calvis, Fred Fleet and Nick Prodanov for their time and efforts to evaluate and provide comments and suggestions. Having a subgroup from the construction community involved enhanced the safety ordinance.”

Unintended consequences?

Running parallel with the Paradise Valley Hillside Building Committee review process is a checklist meant to keep both operations safe and neighboring residents informed.

“I think it is well-enough written, but until we put it into practice we just don’t know,” said Town Engineer Paul Mood. “The way this is written anything that will go to the Hillside Committee will have to have a safety inspection plan.”

Michael Collins

Mayor Michael Collins contends unintended consequences of the new safety provisions within the Hillside building code will be discovered and addressed.

“There may be unintended consequences, but that is what the one year look back is about,” he explained. “But rather than trying to spend an infinite amount of time making it perfect, I think this is very good. I support this as presented.”

Vice Mayor Jerry Bien-Willner echoed a similar sentiment.

“As a policy, I think we are in the right spot,” Mr. Bien-Willner said.

“As we implement this and at the onset to have a staff-driven ordinance of what the data it is they are collecting, I know, intuitively, having some frameworks for these look-backs would be helpful.”

Paradise Valley Town Council is expected to again deliberate the Hillside Building Code update Thursday, June 14 at Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive.

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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