The mayors and council members of Clarkdale and Cottonwood finally met Friday, Aug. 14, in Cottonwood to discuss the offer by Clarkdale of an intergovernmental agreement.
An earlier meeting to address the same topic was scheduled for June 3, but was abruptly canceled by Cottonwood.
The intention of Clarkdale’s agreement is to render unnecessary one of two large proposed annexations by Cottonwood, one of which is 8.5 square miles of U.S. Forest Service land and the other is 10 square miles of state trust land.
The proposed intergovernmental agreement concerns only the USFS property.
Cottonwood Mayor Diane Joens announced the city’s annexation plans for the forest land at about the same time she announced its intention to annex state trust land that begins near Bill Gray Road and extends northeast along both sides of State Route 89A to within six miles of the city limits for Sedona.
Cottonwood has already paid consultants Coe and Van Loo more than $110,000 to map out a large planned community along 89A, encompassing neighborhoods, schools, parks, trails, and enough wastewater plants and retail and commercial endeavors to service approximately 23,000 new homes.
Opponents to that annexation cite worries over the lack of available water for what could amount to more than 50,000 new residents.
According to USFS Red Rock District Ranger Heather Provencio, the forest parcel in question is relatively pristine, home to endangered and threatened species and adjacent to Tuzigoot National Monument and to Tavasci Marsh.
She said it currently suffers little or no impact from adjacent lands.
Although past annexations of forest land have triggered land exchanges leading to development, Joens said the annexation is justified to prevent Clarkdale from doing so, a reason that could be considered disingenuous considering Clarkdale does not currently have the legal right to annex the land.
Even so, Clarkdale Mayor Doug Von Gausig and his council unanimously offered to sign a one-year, renewable agreement promising to keep their hands off the land in the interest of removing any future worries on the part of Cottonwood.
However, before discussing the intergovernmental agreement, Joens told Von Gausig she wanted Clarkdale to agree to “de-annex” the land it annexed years ago during the Ruskin land trade, an action she considers a wrong against her city.
In answer to Joens, Von Gausig said the two parcels of land bear no resemblance to one another, the 820 acre parcel being relatively small, and regularly trespassed by four-wheelers, transients and illegal dumpers who have degraded the property as compared to the eight square miles of pristine property that Cottonwood wants to gain.
Although the forest land Cottonwood seeks is more than six times bigger in size, Joens said, “In fact, I don’t think they are different.”
Since it wasn’t clear that Clarkdale could legally and retroactively “de-annex” that piece of property, public comments were solicited from the audience regarding the current annexations.
Rob Rothrock of the Verde Valley Land Preservation Institute strongly opposed drawing the forest property into Cottonwood’s city limits.
“Lands that are annexed into a community become based in exchange and can be offered in land trades,” Rothrock said. “Payson has annexed many acres and each time they were then exchanged.”
Dr. Robert Richards agreed.
“Cottonwood argues that it can be a better steward, but I don’t know why they believe that,” Richards said. “Annexation will increase the likelihood of this being acquired by a developer.”
Retired USFS ranger Robert Gillies also opposed the action.
“There are already 3,044 acres of USFS land within Cottonwood’s city limits, including prime property on Highway 260,” Gillies said, suggesting the city develop those parcels first.
However, Carolyn Olds, Margie Beach and Diane Lovett were all for it.
“Whenever this land is right for development, it will be developed no matter which city owns it,” Olds said. “Not annexing this land would not stop development.”
Beach lives in Verde Village, an unincorporated community adjacent to Cottonwood.
“I’m so glad Cottonwood bought our water [company.] We’re already getting better service and the city is mitigating our water for arsenic. I wish we had been annexed into the city,” Beach said. “Yes, Cottonwood has many acres within the city limits, but when you’ve seen the growth that happens here, it won’t take long for those acres to fill up. Cottonwood is doing the right thing. [This property] is going to be developed.”
“Cottonwood has done a great thing,” Lovett said. “I haven’t seen a sign yet on I-17 that says you can’t come here. We need to plan for the future.”
Joens subsequently polled her council as to their positions.
Cottonwood council members Terence Pratt, Tim Elinski and Linda Norman were opposed to putting the forest lands in jeopardy.
“I would be more apt to hold off on the forest annexation; I think the main concern is for it to remain open space,” Pratt said.
“Everyone in this room would agree that we don’t want to see the forest land developed,” Elinski said. “I’d like to see [Clarkdale and Cottonwood] combine forces to preserve it.”
Norman said she concurred with Pratt and Elinski.
However, Vice Mayor Karen Pfeifer sided with council members Duane Kirby and Darold Smith.
“Now is the time to move on both parcels,” Pfeifer said. “We’ve been hemmed in. We have no other direction to grow; we’ve been pushed in this direction.”
“I’m not confident we can trust Clarkdale if we don’t do it,” Kirby said.
Smith said he thought Cottonwood had to annex the forest land in order to annex the state land.
When informed by other city officials this wasn’t the case, he said, “Then why are we doing it? What do you mean we don’t have to have it as a contingency?”
However, later in the meeting, Smith changed his mind and said he felt the city had to do both annexations to accommodate future development. No decisions were made at the meeting.