Queen Creek is finally on the map. That’s the weather map — on the evening news. "You didn’t see that a couple of years ago," Town Councilman Jon Wootten said.
The recent nod from meteorologists is just one of many indications that the area’s youngest municipality, which turns 15 this week, has come a long way from its roots as a cluster of family farms to become a top beneficiary of the south East Valley’s growth spurt.
Other signs include the 1.5 million square feet worth of commercial projects already working their way through the town’s approval process, and the current estimated population of 15,000 — more than triple the heads counted during the 2000 census.
Despite the flurry of activity and change, Queen Creek officials have managed to cling tightly to a strict set of design rules and regulations framed by the town’s founders in an effort to create a unique look and maintain high property values. Their tough stand on standards has drawn criticism from some, who say it has driven away lucrative projects and left some residents feeling unwelcome.
There are other concerns, too, including a still dormant downtown area and a mounting municipal debt that could spell disaster if a recession should freeze the many planned retail projects before they bear fruit.
Still, the town’s ability to grow so quickly with such little compromise amounts to an urban planning miracle, engendered by equal parts skill, determination and luck, Queen Creek’s founders said.
’THE PERFECT STORM’
Faced with urban encroachment by Mesa and Gilbert in the mid-1980s, area residents Paul Gardner, Mark Schnepf and Steve Sossaman believed there was little time before their beloved community would be swallowed whole.
"We started to think, ‘Are we going to be the back yard of all the other cities?’ " said Gardner, owner of Queen Creek Water Co.
After much legal and political wrangling, the group managed to place incorporation on the ballot and convinced voters to support it by a considerable margin in 1989.
And then, nothing.
The ensuing recession left the nascent municipality’s leaders with little to do but talk about the kind of town they would someday like to have. They had plenty of time — about five years — to discuss it in detail.
"Our vision was to be different from anybody else and a high-end community," Gardner said.
The result of those idle years was a comprehensive general plan that has become the town’s blueprint and the rallying cry for its leadership. It’s their Alamo.
Wootten, an engineer for Intel Corp., said the Town Council’s strict adherence to the plan has been a source of conflict and criticism, but it has enabled Queen Creek to retain much of its rural look and feel despite rapid growth.
"It’s very important to me, and I know it is to other council members as well," he said.
When development finally did start to approach the town in the mid-1990s, Gardner said much of it leapfrogged right over to nearby Pinal County because of the added expense and hassle of meeting Queen Creek’s design standards.
"It drove the developers bonkers," he said.
But an unexpected thing happened. The growth rate accelerated, and interest rates remained low.
Suddenly, Queen Creek became the place for developers seeking to build medium- and high-end residential projects.
"It’s like the perfect storm," Gardner said. "If we didn’t have such high standards, we could have been completely built out by now."
Still, some residents — including former Mayor Mark Schnepf — said there are times when the current leadership could bend a little more.
"That’s a criticism, that it’s too inflexible and there is not enough ability to work with the town when it comes to new ideas," he said.
Recently, some residents have complained that their individual needs are being neglected for the sake of the general plan.
Some residents of Arroyo de la Reina, a 40-lot subdivision northwest of Hawes and Ocotillo roads, have expressed concern that the "view fences" required by the town won’t shield them from noise created by a much larger community going in across the street. Queen Creek prohibits block walls in all new developments.
"There could be up to 20,000 cars a day on that road," resident Chris Hunt said of Hawes, which is slated to be expanded from two lanes to five. "We would like Queen Creek to at least talk to us about building a wall in front of our subdivision."
Hunt and several neighbors attended a council meeting in April to express their concerns, but town officials steered the discussion toward other solutions, such as rubberized asphalt.
Developer Gerry Blomquist said he’s had his own disagreements with town officials over the years, but he still respects their decisiveness and unique vision.
"Maybe it’s a little more expensive to live here, but overall you know what you’re getting," Blomquist said.
He likened the 15-year-old town to a teenager, saying officials were probably more accepting and open in the early years but have grown more doubting and inflexible after getting burned a couple of times by developers.
"It doesn’t matter what you tell a teenager," Blomquist said. "They always know everything."
Still, Town Manager Cynthia Seelhammer pointed out that some of the town’s ordinances allow unusual flexibility, such as the ones dealing with animals.
"Our rules on livestock are probably among the most liberal you will find," Seelhammer said.
COST OF LIVING
Lofty standards also come with a high price tag, and Queen Creek is planning to increase its debt to as much as $65 million to meet the level of services town officials say residents expect.
The town will ask voters in November to approve a $40 million loan from the Water In frastructure Finance Authority to participate in a regional sewage treatment plant with Mesa and Gilbert.
The town’s financial staff in May suggested options for reducing the proposed debt load by up to $14 million, but most elected officials rejected the idea.
Still, Queen Creek financial consultant Patrick Flynn said all growing communities face financial challenges, and Queen Creek is no different.
"The sky is not falling, by any stretch," said Flynn, a former Tempe assistant city manager.
Flynn said town officials have discussed the possibility of a local property tax but do not have plans to seek voter approval for one any time soon.
"There’s only so many ways you can raise revenue," he said. "The town has done an extremely good job of balancing its finances."
Queen Creek’s assistant town manager, John Kross, said the town conducted a study recently to show that it isn’t spending too much money on employees, as some have criticized.
"There was a misperception that Queen Creek was overstaffed, that there were too many people on the payroll," Kross said.
However, the comparison study revealed that Queen Creek’s 4.6 employees per 1,000 residents is considerably lower than Peoria, Flagstaff, Avondale and several other municipalities.
As more revenue-generating commercial developments such as Home Depot, Safeway and a planned Bashas’ open their doors, concerns about Queen Creek’s future finances should decrease, Flynn said.
And you can rest assured that the buildings will be immaculate.
Queen Creek 15th anniversary celebration
When: 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Founder’s Park, 22407 S. Ellsworth Road
Featuring: Music, dancing, hay rides, petting zoo, games and more
See Tuesday’s "Your Community" page in the Tribune for more on Queen Creek’s history and details about the upcoming anniversary celebration.