Why We Oppose the Desert Discovery Center

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Protect OUR Preserve PAC opposes the Desert Edge because it will spend $68,000,000 of future sales taxes to build a 120,000 sq ft. tourism event center inside our nature Preserve, that will include a restaurant and 60 evening events per year. It will change the ordinances protecting our Preserve to open its entire 30,000 acres up to future commercial development. Scottsdale citizens voted five times to tax themselves $1.7 billion dollars to preserve this land, and our City Charter guarantees this commercial venture must go to a vote of the people.

This large hi-tech museum was first discussed in 2010, 2011 and 2012. However, it was never moved forward because City Council understood that the public monies used on public lands needed the public’s approval. Scottsdale had other pressing infrastructure needs, and the project was shelved. Indeed, in the upcoming 2018 election our City Council plans to ask the taxpayers for $350,000,000 in new bonds, some of which will go to repair bridges that have literally been closed due to lack of repairs.

What has changed such that the Desert Edge is moving forward with only a simple majority of four City Councilpeople? In 2015 DDC’s zoning attorney, who doesn’t even live in Scottsdale, concocted a legal theory that a vote was no longer required. The people behind the DDC then conducted an extensive campaign of illegal lobbying of City Council, staff, and the public. They are barred from this type of activity since they are organized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. We have filed an extensive complaint with the IRS to have their tax-exempt status revoked.

Supporters of the project have claimed that its always been planned. This is nonsense. The 2004 ballot package that funded most of our Preserve says absolutely nothing about museums or tourist attractions. That same ballot only empowered City Council to make improvements “thereto” the Preserve which further the concept of public access – trailheads, parking, water fountains. The lobbyists behind the DDC are seeking improvements “thereon”:  buildings, attractions, construction. We have raised over $100,000 and sued the City on this legal distinction.

This is a critical topic for environmentalists, as nationwide cities and states seek to exploit this legal nuance to use public lands for commercial development. If the DDC is built, there will be no legal protections for future commercial projects such as hotels, condos and jeep tours.

The multiple legal issues notwithstanding, our financial experts predict the Desert Edge will lose $3 to $5 million dollars annually, which must be subsidized by the taxpayers. The DDC business plan has three huge flaws.

  1. It has wildly optimistic attendance estimates of 306,000 visitors per year. This makes it nearly on par with the long-established Desert Botanical Garden and Tucson’s Desert Museum, which both average  approximately 375,000 annual visitors. The DDC predicts more visitors than the Musical Instrument Museum and Taliesin West combined.
  2. Dramatically underestimated fundraising needs. The DDC business plan says it can be profitable with only 27% of its income from annual fundraising. However, the same business plan states the DDC’s direct comps (the Botanical Garden, the Desert Museum, etc) require 37% fundraising. And, the “science museum” sector as a whole requires a whopping 52% income from fundraising.
  3. Extreme overestimate of volunteer support and underestimate of staffing costs. The business plan requires 300 volunteers, and budgets only one $35,000/year employee to manage them.

Additionally, feedback from both tourists and residents is consistent that the project’s reliance on digital screens and virtual exhibits make it inauthentic. Visitors repeatedly tell us that they come to see the real desert. The price tag of $57 for a family of four is excessive, when the real Preserve can be seen for free and enjoyed by everyone from the handicapped to hardcore hikers. There has only been one study in 2013 on the impact to the Tourism industry, and it states that the project will have minimal impact on additional hotel stays. The DDC’s promised educational component for local youth was widely dismissed, as only 11 Scottsdale teachers attended the DDC’s curriculum workshop even after being granted $500 to teach the program. The all-volunteer McDowell Sonoran Conservancy’s offers the same curriculum as part of a free educational programs for area youth. In short, we already have everything the Desert Edge would offer: the desert, the tourists, and the education. The Desert Edge is nothing more than a big-government pet project that will spend $68,000,000 with very little to show in return.

YES to 420. OUR Preserve, OUR Taxes, OUR Vote! Protect OUR Preserve!

Our Charter Change, In Detail

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Why are we asking for a small Charter change? Why alter the City’s “Constitution”? Are there unintended consequences? Does it handcuff the City Council?

A group of experts, including former Preserve Commissioners and a panel of attorneys, gave these questions serious thought and vigorous debate for several weeks in November 2017. There was extensive research and dialog behind our ballot language, to ensure that our change did exactly what it needed to Protect the Preserve, and nothing more.

To fully understand why we had to alter the City’s fundamental governing document and vote YES TO 420, let’s do a quick review of the history leading up to our decision.

In 2004, when the citizens of Scottsdale voted to fund the Preserve through Bond purchases, and up through 2015, there was no mention in any citizen votes about a tourist event center costing $68M. Not one mention. Even the Desert Discovery Center\Desert Edge’s strongest proponents in 2004 made not a single mention of an expensive edutainment center when they commented in the City’s voting packet prior to the bond election.

“The answer is to preserve open space, which is exactly what the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is doing. We need to help complete the task of preserving more than 36,000 acres of open space.” — Art DeCabooter, 2004 Scottsdale City Ballot Packet

The preserve supports the tourism community by providing a unique and world-class amentiy that draws people from all over the world.” — Virginia Korte, 2004 Scottsdale City Ballot Packet

Protecting our natural environment also protects our hospitality industry and our quality of life. Because if this land isn’t preserved, a whole new city will be built in this area.” — Christine Kovach, 2004 Scottsdale City Ballot Packet

Today, Art DeCabooter sits on the Board of Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale, Inc. (DDCSI), the private firm that wants to develop the Preserve. Christine Kovach is DDCSI’s Chair. Virginia Korte is a City Councilperson and the Desert Edge’s most outspoken advocate. None of the three mention construction in their comments. The large Desert Edge did not exist, even in theory, anywhere in voting documents or even in the public dialog. The citizens firmly believed the were voting to preserve their land when they voted to tax themselves.

In 2010, 2011, and 2012 various city commissions studied the large tourist event center topic, and each one concluded it could not be built in the Preserve and could not use Preserve Funds without a vote of the citizens. The City’s leaders understood their limitations: the Preserve and Preserve Fund belonged to the citizens.

In 2015, Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale, Inc board members including Sam Campana, Melinda Gulick, Christine Kovach and Lynne Lagarde heavily lobbied the City Attorney, City Manager, Mayor and Councilpeople. We’ve documented all the influence peddling in our IRS Complaint. The result of these backroom deals was in January 2016, City Attorney Bruce Washburn declared the City Council could build anything it wants in the Preserve using Preserve funds, by a simple majority of four politicians.

The City Charter and 13 years of precedent were thrown out.

Today the City Council maintains they can build anything they want in the Preserve. They can send out bulldozers to start the $68M Desert Edge by a simple majority of four people. This will open the entire Preserve to commercial development, and drain the Preserve Fund of $3-$5M a year as it subsidizes the Desert Edge. The Preserve Fund will likely be empty before its even finished collecting in 2034.

Our minimal Charter change — and if you look at this graphic below you will see it is truly minimal — closes this newly-exploited loophole. It does not change, alter or remove in any way the existing management structure of the Preserve through the hands of the Preserve Commission, City Staff and City Council.

Concerns that YES TO 420 will handcuff City Council are unfounded. We are confident we change nothing but construction, and the voters have ultimate authority.

Section 12.A of our ballot language places restrictions on construction. But the exceptions in 12.B keep the exactly same management and stewardship. Here are some specific examples of how these Preserve management topics have, and will continue to be handled with YES TO 420.

Example 1: A Natural Disaster 
The Preserve has an existing Fire Plan, that is outside the scope of our ballot change. We’ve confirmed with attorneys, and our local firemen at Station 10 a half mile from the Preserve, that nothing changes in regard to the existing fire response plan. Maintenance roads around the trailhead facilities and even on trails are and will continue to be allowed under section 12.B(2). Nothing changes with YES TO 420.

Floods occur every year in the Preserve. They have been managed minimally, as they are part of the regular course of nature. Existing management will not change. Flood channels have not needed to be built in the Preserve. Downstream dangers — if any — would be handled by development downstream, as is customary if a developer builds in a flood channel.

Example 2: Unsafe Conditions
The City regularly puts notifications out at trailheads restricting use after heavy rains.This has been ongoing since Browns Ranch opened nearly five years ago. Trail closures are not construction or altering the natural state of the land. Nothing in YES TO 420 restricts it.

Another example: the City recently closed some of the access on Tom’s Thumb, to protect nesting birds. Then, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy Parsons Field Institute, working with the City of Scottsdale, implemented a prairie falcon monitoring project to study the birds. What an incredible way to protect our Preserve, and learn from it, without construction or altering the natural state of the land. YES TO 420 changes nothing about a project such as this.

Bees, washouts, wildlife, fallen trees can all be addressed similarly under existing management. Search-and-Rescue ops will remain as-is.

Example 3: Maintenance and Remediation
This is clearly exempted under 12.B(2) and (4). Here’s an example. Half a mile down from Sunrise summit on the east side, the trail used to go around a big saguaro. The trail was eroding downslope away from the saguaro, exposing the root and threatening its safety. You can see in this pic that City staff rerouted, armored, and remediated the trail. YES TO 420 does not change this.

Similarly, fire damage or invasive plants could be addressed, under section 12.B(4), which allows for restoration efforts.

YES TO 420 only closes a loophole, and keeps the Preserve in the hands of the citizens, not the politicians. It does nothing more that codify what we voted on in 2004, and formalize the precedent we’ve followed for 15 years.

This video is a great summary.

Against 420 Arguments

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The following arguments against proposition 420 have been constantly used by DDC/DE advocates to try to convince voters to vote NO on 420. Some contain a sliver of truth, but then abandon and distort the truth to suit their purpose. Common arguments, and the truth, are presented below.

  1. The City Council should make decisions on the Preserve, this would hinder them. – This is perhaps the most ridiculous argument of all. The council has proved they will not represent citizens but rather make decisions based on what 4 of them want, not what the majority of Scottsdale Citizens want. Proposition 420 was created specifically because the council majority ignored what citizens want, and worse denied them a voice or vote in the process of approving a development in the Preserve.
  2. Proposition 420 was created in opposition to the Desert Discovery Center (DDC), now the Desert Edge (DE). If passed, it will hinder the development of the DDC, which they want DDC. – Partially true, when citizens found out a special interest group wanted to build this commercial venue in the Preserve, they were alarmed and angered, which eventually led to them becoming involved in either killing it, or as a minimum giving citizens control over it by requiring a public vote to build it in the Preserve.
  3. Requiring a public vote would hinder education and access and more “improvements”. First of all “access” is not limited or changed by proposition 420. Currently ANYONE can go into the Preserve, which even has 3 ADA accessible trails, in addition to hiking, biking, and equestrian (multiuse) trails and rock climbing areas to accommodate as many different users as possible. And it is all FREE to everyone. Second, education is already provided by the city’s non-profit partner, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy (MSC). The MSC provides educational hikes, lectures, online education, and educational guides, all at NO COST to the city and all without ANY BUILDINGS. Would it hinder “more improvements”. It will not hinder additional trails, but would hinder other development in the Preserve but only by requiring the public approve any proposed project. I guess that could be termed “hindering” such “improvements” but requiring public approval doesn’t prevent them, it simply requires public approval to make sure it is appropriate for the Preserve. That is what proposition 420 is all about, giving the public control over any “improvements” 4 members of the city council may want in the Presereve.
  4. It would not allow emergency actions to be quickly approved. Nothing in Proposition 420 impacts current management of the Preserve, including “emergencies”. Anticipated emergencies, like fire, have already been considered and the reaction formalized in the Preserve Fire Management Plan. Proposition 420 has NO impact on this or any other emergency plans or actions. This argument has NO basis in fact.
  5. Proposition 420 was created by NYMBYS who want to limit access to the Preserve and keep it for themselves. See the argument about limiting access. Nothing in Proposition 420 changes current access of the Preserve. Proposition 420 WAS NOT created by residents near the Preserve, but rather by residents who have been involved with the Preserve since its inception, most of whom do not live near the Preserve.
  6. Proposition 420 puts decisions in the hands of an unelected body. Another ridiculous argument. There is only ONE mention of any public body and that is that NEW trails must be approved by the McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission (MSPC) who is currently tasked with creating the management and trails plans for the Preserve so this is not a new requirement but rather just requires what is already in the Preserve Ordinance, which also established the MSPC to be the citizen body that oversees all Preserve related actions. Since the ordinance can be changed by just 4 council members, this addition to the charter would keep the MSPC involved in deciding where new trails should go and are appropriate. Members to the MSPC are not elected, but rather are assigned by the city council, so in reality the council still does have some control over the process by who they assign to the MSPC.
  7. It changes the management of the Preserve. The Charter change in Proposition 420 does nothing to the existing management of the Preserve, except it would require MSPC approval of NEW trails, which they are already responsible for by the Preserve Ordinance. However it would prevent staff, and the city council, from building anything they want in the Preserve without a public vote, which is the purpose of the charter change. So in that respect it technically changes the management of the Preserve by giving citizens some control.
  8. The Preserve already protected, it is unnecessary no further prohibition is necessary. We wish this were true, but sadly it is not. I helped draft the Preserve Ordinance and existing Charter language, and at the time we thought they would protect the Preserve. But this city council, and the Desert Discovery Center Scottsdale Inc. organization proved to us that the Preserve is not protected against developments like the DDC or DE and therefore needs further protection. That is exactly what proposition 420 does.
  9. Confusing language leads to legal battles and unintended consequences. The Charter language in proposition 420 is actually less suspectable to “legal battles” than the current language, which is already the subject of a legal battle because of the way the city attorney interpreted it. The language in the proposition 420 Charter change is actually stronger and less ambiguous and was also passed through one of the Valley’s best legal firms for these kinds of actions. So it is less confusing and less susceptible to legal challenge than the current language. The only “unintended consequence” is to the DDC/DE advocates who would now have to convince the public that their project belongs in the Preserve.
  10. No more land to buy, the excess $100M of Preserve funds should be used for MORE improvements. This is a blatant lie. There are approximately 4,000 more acres in the voter approved Preserve boundary left to buy. The remaining $100M is not likely enough to buy all of it but it is certainly enough to buy some. Preserve funds have already been used to construct the existing trails and trail heads to allow public access as originally planned. Unanticipated and unplanned “improvements” should require public approval.
  11. Petition gatherers lied about the DDC. This is obviously the opinion of a DDC/DE advocate, which can neither be proved or denied without proof, however all of the volunteers were instructed on what to say and how to approach potential signers and the only thing said was that there were plans to build a DDC or DE in the Preserve at the Gateway. The cost was taken from the latest Desert Edge Plan, so that is treated as a fact. So we are not sure what “lies” this refers to, but the overall reaction to the signature gathering effort has been extremely positive, as evidenced by the number of volunteers (over 280) and the number of citizens who signed the petition (over 37,000).
  12. It was funded by dark money. Another blatant attempt to shift the focus from what Proposition 420 does for the voters of Scottsdale to another popular topic among voters. Most of the funding of the signature gathering effort came from average citizens, just like you. Some funding was received from donors who wanted to remain anonymous, but most of those funds were used to fund our legal challenge against the city, which essentially stalled action on the DDC/DE until we could gather signatures to put this charter change on the ballot. But even those donors are Scottsdale citizens too. The legal challenges were not done by the Political Action Committee (PAC), that we had to form to gather signatures, but rather was done by the Protect Our Preserve (POP) organization. POP had collected a lot of money before the petition effort even started so the decision was made to spend some of that money on this ballot initiative because it better accomplishes POP’s mission of protecting the Preserve. There is absolutely nothing illegal about the way either action was done and virtually all the money raised came from Scottsdale citizens, not from mysterious outside sources trying to control an election.
  13. Charter changes are serious, it is dangerous to change the Charter. Another ridiculous argument that totally ignores the history of the Charter, and more specifically as it relates to the Preserve. In 1998, the Charter was changed in an attempt to protect the Preserve by prohibiting the council from disposing of Preserve lands without a public vote. That change was embraced by the voters who approved it 80% to 20%. Proposition 420 is just an extension of that section of the existing charter to further protect the Preserve against inappropriate development by requiring that same public vote to build anything in the Preserve. All the planned trails and trail heads have already been built and would not be impacted by this requirement. Proposition 420 changes NOTHING else, just adds further protection for the Preserve and Preserve funds. Most Charter changes impact the entire city or its operations, this one only impacts development in the Preserve, which shouldn’t have any development in it anyway. So this change is far less dangerous than many other changes to the city Charter, that has been changed 13 times covering 75 requested changes of which 70 passed, during its history.
  14. Handicapped relatives need the DDC. See the answer about access which is not only free to everyone, but accommodates the handicapped already. For those few people who can’t be outside in the Preserve, there is no reason why a facility for them can’t be built outside the Preserve, since they aren’t going into the Preserve anyway.