Developers push revisionist history


In March 2000, the people of Flagstaff, Ariz., won a big one. Development of a treasured crater and wetland known as Dry Lake into a gated, high-end golf-course subdivision was stopped dead.

This is especially significant because the property was private and already zoned for a planned community. The four-year battle was complicated, including a land swap between two developers, the involvement of federal and county agencies, and varieties of public funding. Opposition was spearheaded by a grassroots citizens group, Friends of Dry Lake, that formed only two weeks after the development plans became public (HCN, 5/8/00: Crater doesn't come cheap).

Now, two short years later, Dry Lake has become important for another reason. The developers, having been dragged screaming - sometimes literally - to the bargaining table, are spinning a fraudulent tale of cooperation between developers and environmentalists.

Just before the deal came together to protect the crater, the developer described the process as "political extortion." Nine months later, the same developer has been quoted saying, "We were tickled to be part of an example where developers and conservationists and politicians can sit down around a table and find out a solution to a problem that satisfies everybody's needs."

The press has bought it hook, line and sinker. Two Arizona newspapers ran editorials touting Dry Lake as a model for future cooperative development. The local Arizona Daily Sun congratulated both sides: "In hindsight, it's too bad the parties could not have all sat down at the same table initially to work out their differences in a civil fashion. But the lesson for the future appears to be that if developers and preservationists can come to agreement on an issue as divisive as Dry Lake, anything is possible."

The state's big daily, the Arizona Republic, described the saving of the crater as "all because developers and environmentalists cooperated instead of fighting" and concluded with, "What a treasure from innovative cooperation."

We've become accustomed to greenwashing on the part of the big players such as Exxon, Weyerhaeuser, Home Depot, etc. These local desires for just a little more cooperation come close. Here's a quiz: Which of the following illustrations of "cooperation" do you think took place during the Dry Lake ordeal?

  • a) The initial developer showed no interest in a proposed land swap of the kind that eventually took place until after he lost his rezoning attempt through a courageous decision of the County Board of Supervisors in 1999.

  • b) Prior to the county decision, the same developer sent a letter to members of the local Chamber of Commerce in which he described the opposition as "Flagstaff's small but very vocal group of anti-growth, anti-business and anti-development proponents." He urged the business community to "take a firm stand against these unreasonable and misinformed groups ..."

  • c) Even after the developer's environmental consultant apologized for his "mistake" in reporting that there were no endangered species on the property, the developer's sales brochure continued to reassure potential investors that endangered species weren't a problem.

  • d) After the land swap, the second developer continued to haggle and loudly complain for months about not getting enough money.

  • e) All of the above.

If you've followed development in the New West, you undoubtedly picked "All of the above" as the right answer. Aside from the effrontery of this spin, the danger to growing Western communities is that the public might begin to believe that cooperation can control rampant development.

In the case of Dry Lake, it was acknowledged by everyone * including the developers * that timely and persistent opposition was crucial. Without it, the first developer would almost certainly have gotten his initial rezoning in 1997, and the crater would be a golf-course subdivision today. And though community activists have saved the crater, the next time you're in Flagstaff check out what was not saved: The crater's slopes crawl with roads and houses.

The idea of early cooperation between developers and citizens sounds like a good thing, but can it ever be possible? Genuine cooperation requires agreement on fundamental goals. Can citizens wanting to save a special place, and developers wanting to pave it over, ever agree on a goal?

I think the process will remain one of confrontation and negotiation. It is another question whether the rancor stirred up by these struggles can be minimized. We can all try to be civil. But if Dry Lake is any model, it's this: Fighting inappropriate development takes persistent pressure applied just as long as it takes to win.

Norm Wallen is a former Flagstaff city councilman.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Norm Wallen

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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