Paradise Valley looks to put a finer point on Hillside development

Homes on and around mountainsides have long been a mark of the affluent oftentimes resulting in precarious development cases pitting neighbor against neighbor — Paradise Valley is no exception. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The Town of Paradise Valley is moving forward with an holistic approach to how the municipality regulates the building of residential homes — or any other structure — on lots with a greater than 10 percent slope.

Paradise Valley Town Council is looking at a series of 19 amendments to the existing Hillside code, which is administered by Town Hall, but overseen by the Hillside Building Committee.

The Town of Paradise Valley Hillside Building Committee is comprised of five members — two citizens appointed by town council and three rotating members of the Planning Commission.

Since July 2015, local leaders have eyed updating the Hillside building code, which was largely sparked by safety concerns around carving out portions of mountainside to develop million-dollar homes.

Reviewing plans that allow for picturesque views on residential dwellings atop and aside local mountains — Camelback and Mummy mountains specifically — is the responsibility of the Hillside Building Committee.

The committee reviews land disturbance, heights, lighting, building materials, grading and drainage, and other issues in an effort to preserve the hillside, town code states.

The Paradise Valley Town Council meets at 6401 E. Lincoln Drive. (file photo)

“This is a really, really big project and that is evident as we started in 2015,” said Paradise Valley Town Manager Kevin Burke in a March 28 phone interview.

“It started with let’s do some cleanup with the code then, in 2016, council added it to their quality-of-life initiatives and as such we hosted a community conversation.”

In March 2017, Paradise Valley Town Council, during its annual retreat, opted to add new safety standards to the existing Hillside building code, Mr. Burke points out.

Mr. Burke explains Paradise Valley Town Council is seeking to clarify policies and procedures to applying for a Hillside construction project and reducing the need for case-by-case decisions.

Mr. Burke says town officials are seeking a transparent building process with engineering stipulations done in a proactive fashion — rather than a reactive one.

“We generally require those engineering documents, but they would come at the building permit part of the process,” he said.

“What we are proposing is we do a lot of that engineering up front.”

Paradise Valley Town Council is expected to host two April work sessions, and has set May 10 for a public hearing on code amendments.

Safety is the driving force

Paradise Valley Councilwoman Julie Pace says the town is responding to resident concerns, suggestions and ideas.

Julie Pace

“Many residents wrote and called demanding the town address hillside and safety. Numerous meetings with residents and the town occurred about hillside (development) and safety. Some town committee chairs and members echoed the residents’ questions as to where does safety evaluation fit in.”

Ms. Pace decided to push for further public conversation on the issue after disovering the hillside building code didn’t have safety guidelines set out at the beginning of the process.

“It soon became clear that safety considerations were not adequately addressed in the process for receiving public comments or as a technical matter by the town,” she said. “It was sort of addressed belatedly at the end of the entire building process, which did not make sense, especially for challenging lots. One of the town’s primary functions is to ensure the safety of its residents and we had a gap in the process.”

Ms. Pace explains residents want the opportunity to provide feedback on proposed projects that could impact the topography of the surrounding community.

“Residents were repeatedly told they could not comment about safety to the Board of Adjustment as the BOA focused solely on the six factors that all have to be met to attain a variance,” she pointed out. “Safety is not one of the six factors.”

Ms. Pace says updating the hillside guidelines is a measure needed for the residents of the Town of Paradise Valley.

“Dynamiting on the mountains got everyone’s attention about safety and development on Camelback, Mummy Mountain and the Phoenix Preserve mountains. The mountains are what make Paradise Valley unique and residents rank quality of life and our scenic mountains as their No. 1 priorities for us to address and protect. No one wants to get it wrong and have someone die or observe visual scars that permanently damage mountains.”

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

A serious priority

Paradise Valley Councilman Scott Moore says he was elected to pursue and protect quality of life initiatives.

“When our residents elected me to serve on the town council in November 2016 one of the first goals established at our council retreat in 2017 was a recommendation by the mayor to finish the ‘Quality of Life Initiatives’ established by the prior council,” he said.

“Just to name a few of those initiatives, they included cell phone coverage, a bicycle/pedestrian master plan, trash and updates to the hillside ordinance,” he said.

“Now as a seated council member, I have been working with the current Planning Commission, staff and my fellow council members going through years of careful consideration that include many public hearings finalizing the hillside ordinance updates.”

One proposed change is looking to shorten the purview of the Hillside Building Committee chairman. The new code would limit variance approvals to 100 square feet. Today, that variance is 1,000 square feet.

Scott Moore

“The current code does not allow for the hillside chairman to approve up to a 1,000-square-foot ‘extension,’” he explained.

“In the current code, Section 2204 (C) suggests that ‘if the Town Engineer in consultation with a member of the Hillside Committee determines that the proposed construction: (i) creates a significant visual impact: or (ii) proposes an additional disturbance area, then it must be reviewed by the entire Hillside Committee.

“Obviously a 1,000-square-foot addition would create a significant visual impact. However, this ambiguity in the original language of the code is what gave staff and the Hillside Committee chair some discretion as to whether or not some additions or modifications needed full Hillside Committee review.”

In further explanation, Mr. Moor contends:

“To better define the intent of the code the proposed code amendment recommended by the Planning Commission says, ‘proposed accessory structures and additions may be reviewed by the Hillside Building Committee Chair provided the proposed improvements do not: (i) exceed or increase the existing building footprint by more than 1,000 square feet.’

“I’m against this recommendation and thought it conflicts with current code. The council agreed and decided on 100 square feet or less of disturbance would be in conformance with the original intent of the code and still give some discretion to staff and the Hillside Committee Chair to review small disturbances or modifications as before.”

Mr. Moore believes proposed changes to existing code are also in step with the town’s limited government model.

The intent of the hillside code is to provide both staff and prospective builder a more defined set of rules and guidelines, Mr. Moore says.

“Many of these revisions that took months’ worth of work and study by our Planning Commission, including countless public hearings were oftentimes a result of our staff asking for better clarification within the code.”

Mr. Moore agrees safety off all involved in a hillside building project is a paramount concern of his and his fellow members of Paradise Valley Town Council.

“One of my campaign promises was safety and it will always be one of my top priorities. Our residents say it is one of their most important concerns,” he said.

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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