Incorporation efforts halt

Grassroots effort to incorporate New River, Desert Hills into city officially killed by Phoenix’s denial

Photo courtesy of NRDHIC/By Wiley Hall

By TARA ALATORRE

NEW RIVER – The move by citizens to incorporate the areas of New River and Desert Hills in an effort to secure their rural way of life and help mitigate the community’s longtime drought issues, which has seen wells dry up in recent years and has become increasingly reliant on delivery services for potable water, officially died last week.

The City of Phoenix issued a letter to the attorneys of the New River Desert Hills Incorporation Committee (NRDHIC) Political Action Committee (PAC) on May 28, declining to support the proposed incorporation, essentially halting incorporation efforts permanently.

The letter to NRDHIC from Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher, which also had the mayor, city council, city clerk, Arizona State Land Department, the City of Peoria, the City of Scottsdale and the Town of Cave Creek is stated below:

“This letter is in response to your request that the City of  Phoenix (“Phoenix”) adopt a resolution pursuant to A.R.S. 9-101.01(c)(1) approving the proposed incorporation of the New River-Desert Hills area. Phoenix has reviewed the information you provided and conducted our own research. After careful consideration. Phoenix declines to support the proposed incorporation.”

For a municipality to form in Arizona the area incorporating must receive permission from bordering cities in the form of an adopted resolution, according to the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.

The area shaded shows the borders defined by NRDHIC, which could have been incorporated into a city by voters living in the community. However, the measure won’t make it to the ballot now that the City of Phoenix has officially declined to support the proposal.
(Image courtesy of NRDHIC)

With the City of Phoenix’s official denial, the NRDHIC can no longer place the incorporation measure on the upcoming Maricopa County ballot this November like it intended.

For almost two years members of NRDHIC have been researching the feasibility of incorporating, raising funds for legal fees and land surveys to define the community’s border, filing paperwork and organizing neighborhood meetings.

The grassroots PAC filed their application for its incorporation petition on April 5, 2019, with the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office. Its volunteers have been diligently collecting signatures since, setting up tables on the roadsides and in community meeting spots.

 “Our goal was to give the people the power to control their destiny of what happened here in this community,” NRDHIC President Laurie Ricci said.  “We will continue to advocate for our community.”

Ricci believes that they collected more than the minimum 10 percent, or 1,100 signatures required to place the incorporation measure on a county ballot, but she said they had not finished tallying the numbers yet (at the time this was written).

Laurie Ricci, president of NRDHIC, collecting signatures for the petition to incorporate. (Photo courtesy of NRDHIC)

As far as the future for NRDHIC, she says it currently owes money to its attorneys, but after it settles the outstanding balance the PAC will be dissolved.

“We literally can’t go forward so this is a hard stop for us,” she said.

While Phoenix did not provide NRDHIC any answers for why they declined to support the incorporation in its letter, The Foothills Focus reached out to the city for additional details. Julie Watters a Phoenix spokesperson responded on May 31, saying there were several factors.

“Loss of state shared revenue of approximately $1.6 million in 2019 and $1.7 million in 2020,” Watters stated in her email response while adding, “Possible impact on other city services (example: annexations).”

The Arizona State Land Department’s (ASLD) opposition to the incorporation also likely played into Phoenix’s denial.  According ASLD, approximately half of the 36,000 acres to be incorporated as depicted on the legal map is state trust land.

“The proposed incorporation would not facilitate, and would in fact hinder, the ability of that State Trust Land to serve its beneficiaries,” stated ASLD Commissioner Lisa Atkins in a letter she sent on April 26.  “ASLD has a fiduciary obligation to manage State Trust land in the best interest of the 13 beneficiaries. The Trust land in question is held for the benefit of our K-12 public education systems.”

The letter was supposed to have been sent to NRDHIC member Steven Scharboneau Jr., but the group says they never received a copy.  In fact, NRDHIC claims that they were only made aware of the letter when the New River Desert Hills Community Association’s Director, Neil Rifenbark, made them aware of it.

“It’s so weird!” Ricci said about NRDHIC never receiving ASLD’s letter.

Rifenbark nor the community association would comment on how they obtained the letter, which is not addressed to him or the organization he represents.

Finding out about the ASLD letter just only last week was like putting salt in the wound because NRDHIC says it would have at least liked a chance to respond and come to the negotiation table.

“ASLD will remain willing to work with the proposed incorporators to see if they and ASLD can reach a mutually acceptable resolution in the future,” the ASLD letter from Atkins stated.

However, with the way the state trust land was checkerboarded throughout the area defined on NRDHIC’s legal map, negotiations may have been futile as it would have been near impossible to create a contiguous border while excluding state trust land, according to Ricci.

“We’re all losing,” Ricci said woefully about the denial.  “If this is any indication of the future…Phoenix is one of the fastest growing cities and previously they said they would never go north of the Carefree Highway, but their landlocked and they can only grow north now.”

And while there is the option now for the residents of the New River and Desert Hills to ask Phoenix to annex the community since it declined their request to incorporate, it’s the last thing members of NRDHIC want to do.

“While it is unfortunate that the community was not able to make the decision on whether to incorporate themselves, I know that they will continue to remain engaged,” stated Maricopa County Supervisor and Chairman Bill Gates of District 3.

He also encouraged the community to continue working towards addressing water concerns in the area.

“As Maricopa County is not a water provider, nor do we have any authority over water rights, I am limited in any effort to secure a water source,” Chairman Gates said.  “However, I am always willing to speak with the community and assist if possible, similar to my involvement with the EPCOR standpipe.”