A mountain town locks out gated communities

  • John Grahame

    Richard Foust photo

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Jim Mehen's first gated golf community dropped into Flagstaff 10 years ago the way a fine putt drops into a cup on a lush green. But when the northern Arizona developer proposed another golf enclave last fall, it didn't even make the fairway. Faced with strong public opposition, Mehen withdrew his plans for the Flagstaff Ranch Golf Club. He hopes to bring back a modified proposal when a regional planning process concludes sometime next year.

Meanwhile, Mehen's opponents are thanking him for a new wave of environmental activism and a debate on growth in this pine-scented college town on the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. "Flagstaff was being devoured by developers," says John Grahame, who helped found a citizens' group that's fighting Mehen's proposal. "People felt helpless. Dry Lake was the turning point."

Dry Lake is the semi-wild basin on the edge of town where Mehen wants to build 300 luxury homes and a championship golf course. The 405-acre parcel cups a 40-acre wetland - extremely rare in Arizona - and elk and deer wander steep hillsides of ponderosa pine, Gambel oak and aspen.

This is private land. "That's why this is so frustrating to me," says Mehen. "When it comes to preservation, I say 'let's concentrate on public lands.' "

Mehen insists that his plans for Dry Lake, once a dairy farm, are environmentally friendly. The wetland would be preserved, he says. He blames the resistance on a small, vocal, anti-growth group.

"Wrong," says Grahame. "When the word got out, this town caught fire. A thousand locals signed petitions against the plan. Six hundred mailed letters of opposition." Facing a dubious Coconino County Board of Supervisors in November, Mehen temporarily withdrew his request for a necessary zoning change.

Mehens' opponents organized last fall as Friends of Dry Lake. Its 300 members hope to preserve the parcel as open space, either through a land trust or public acquisition. The going price is said to be $5 million.

Two other local green groups formed in the wake of Dry Lake. Flagstaff Activist Network focuses on stopping ski development and mining on the San Francisco Peaks. Flagstaff Opposed to Nuclear Transport helped get the city council to declare Flagstaff a nuclear-free zone.

All this delights Mary Sojourner, a writer who led the early charge against the golf course development, partly through an environmental column published in a local weekly (see sidebar).

Mehen grudgingly acknowledges Sojourner's leadership, but says she and Friends of Dry Lake are misguided.

"I live here," says Mehen. "I want to preserve the quality of life. I want to be part of the solution."

Sojourner snorts at Mehen's claim that he, too, is an environmentalist: "I'm sorry ... Environmental developer is an oxymoron. And we'd be morons to believe him."

Mehen says he promotes reasonable growth and points out that Dry Lake has been zoned for over 1,500 units since 1983, although Mehen says it would be impossible to build that many homes in the basin.

Critics worry that golf course chemicals could harm the wetland, and that houses and roads will displace wildlife. They also say gated enclaves divide communities along economic lines.

Mehen's first gated development, Forest Highlands, faced little opposition when it was built in the mid-1980s. Flagstaff has since grown at an annual rate of 3 percent, topping 50,000 people in 1995.

Corporate franchises have arrived in droves. Second-home developers are busy marketing Flagstaff's clean air, mountain views and small-city friendliness. Locals wonder what will be left when the dust settles.

Mehen says his golf ranch would provide 100 jobs, pump $10-15 million into the local economy every year and boost county tax rolls by about $1 million.

City and county officials have begun looking carefully at expensive, recreation-based projects. Last fall, Flagstaff Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously rejected Fairway Peaks, a gated golf development inside city limits.

Two years ago, county supervisors voted 4-1 to approve Aspen Shadows, a gated golf project next door to Dry Lake. But Tom Chabin, who chairs the county board, says he might vote against Aspen Shadows if he had it to do over again. Chabin stops short of saying he's philosophically opposed to high-end second-home development, but he's no fan of gated enclaves.

"A kid should be able to go out on Halloween and trick-or-treat anywhere in his hometown," he says.

The writer is a freelancer in Flagstaff, Arizona.

You can contact ...

* Friends of Dry Lake, P.O. Box 23813, Flagstaff, AZ 86002-3813; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site: www.savedrylake.org

* Jim Mehen, Flagstaff Ranch Golf Club, 2304 N. Fourth St., Suite B, Flagstaff, AZ 86004; 520/526-3395.

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