Museum’s land use plan deemed inappropriate

By Linda Bentley | October 22, 2008

‘I support the museum but not this plan’
CAVE CREEK – Four major general plan amendments drew a standing-room-only crowd to last Thursday’s planning commission meeting, although the majority left before the meeting ran into Friday.

Planning Director Ian Cordwell told the crowd Growing Smarter legislation approved by Arizona voters several years ago, only allows applications for major general plan amendments to be heard once per year.

In Cave Creek, a major plan amendment is required for changes to land use designations of one acre or more.

Ellen Van RiperAttorney Ellen Van Riper, vice president of the Cave Creek Museum board presented the museum’s application to amend the land use map for its 1.18-acre parcel on Basin Road from low-density residential (R-35, R-18) to Commercial Buffer (CB).

If approved by council, the requested land use designation would allow the property to be considered for future rezoning to CB, providing it were to survive the anticipated referendum.

Van Riper acknowledged the museum’s initial intent was to move the museum to the old Phoenix Mine site. However, she said feedback received indicated moving all the way out to Spur Cross was not a good idea, it was too far out and the museum should remain in the town core. So the board voted to put aside the notion of moving and remain where they are.

Van Riper said the museum was a legal nonconforming and that was a problem. She said the only way to bring its nonconforming use to a legal status, since there is no special use permit (SUP) for museums, was with CB zoning.

“The problem with a legal nonconforming use,” Van Riper said, “If half the building burned down, we cannot reconstruct. If less than half the building burned down, we must rebuild in 12 months,” which she said would be impossible.

Van Riper stated, “This status also does not allow us to expand … we need more space. Nonconformity also … diminishes our prospects of getting grants. Commercial Buffer will … allow us to continue our use.”

Van Riper continued, “We’ve also heard from people who don’t think zoning changes are bad. We just want to continue the use. People say they support the museum and want us to be here.”

Museum Executive Director Evelyn Johnson told the commission, “We are the town’s cultural keepers … A town without a museum is a town without a soul.”

According to Johnson, a common question on grant applications addresses land use entitlements. “Once we state it is a legal nonconforming use, we are immediately disqualified.”

Museum President Barbara Chatzkel said there is overwhelming support for the museum and reiterated the museum is not planning to move from its current site. Regarding the decision to move forward with the general plan amendment, she said it “was not a unanimous vote.”

Commissioner Bob Williams said, “A lot of what we heard here tonight was not in our packet. I don’t understand why you’re doing this.”

Van Riper responded, “The only zoning category that fits is Commercial Buffer.”

Commissioner Steve LaMar said, “Scenarios, such as a natural disaster, we can amend the ordinance. A disaster like you’re talking about, there would be nothing left. I don’t see where you are disadvantaged.”

Van Riper said the museum has a lot of off-site storage, adding, “We wouldn’t have as much.”

Instead of a text change, Van Riper said she’d rather it be a SUP – not a legal nonconforming use. The way the code is written now, she said a general plan amendment was their only option to legalize the use.

Commissioner Dan Baxley asked about the lifespan of a nonconforming use.

Cordwell said it is for as long as the use is in place.

When Baxley asked if the museum had actually been denied a grant, Johnson said, “We had someone interested in donating money and when I said it was a legal nonconforming use, they said that did not fit their criteria.”

When Vice Chair Jim Bruce asked if a SUP would get around that, Cordwell responded, “Yes.”

Commissioner Bill Allen suggested, with regard to making changes to the zoning ordinance, staff look at Wickenburg.

During public comment, Andrea Markowitz told the commission they had already stolen her thunder and said, as a museum board member, along with four other board members, she was opposed to the request for a general plan amendment.

Larry Clausen, who lives near the museum on Hidden Valley Drive, told the commission, “Once you change that zoning, it affects all the neighbors immediately.”

Jay Williams, a docent at the museum, said the museum had been operating since 1970 with a SUP from the county. However, when the town incorporated, the SUP somehow disappeared.

“The town has put us in a box,” said Williams, “We’re just legitimizing a use. The underlying zoning is residential. It would be nice to have a defined use.”

Don Asakawa said the museum was a valuable asset to the community and he sympathized. However, with all the issues raised by the commission, he said he was more in favor of seeking an alternative.

Zenonas Misius said he lived 300 feet from the museum. “I can see the lights from my patio. I like museum. It is good spot for museum. I am for zoning.”

Anna Marsolo spoke in opposition and said condos had been spoken of as being a “protective veil.”

Bob Moore said he was confused why the town would bring these changes forward, referring to all four cases being heard, “when changes could be made tomorrow.”

The commission voted unanimously to recommend against approval with Bruce stating, “The problem with Commercial Buffer is, once it’s approved it’s there.”

Williams said, “I have a problem with this issue. There are alternatives. The other issue with Commercial Buffer is if the museum should move. I support the museum but not this plan.”
Commissioner Reg Monachino said he would like to see other alternatives.

LaMar said he didn’t see someone getting turned down one time in 20 years for a donation as a reason, while Allen stated, “The museum has functioned for a long time but the request tonight was inappropriate.”

Cordwell said a development agreement might also be a solution.

There will be a special session of the planning commission on Nov. 6 to review four annexation-related rezoning cases.

Photo: Attorney Ellen Van Riper, vice president of the Cave Creek Museum board, told the planning commission amending the land use plan for the museum from low-density residential to Commercial Buffer was the only way, under the current zoning ordinance, to correct its legal nonconforming status.
Photo by Linda Bentley