August 3, 2016
Ahwatukee Foothills News
Lee Shappell, AFN Managing Editor
The True Life Companies, which last summer bought the closed Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Club, today unveiled plans for transforming its browned-out fairways and empty lakes into “Ahwatukee Farms."
The project calls for a maximum average of three single-family homes per acre on the 101-acre site, which would also include community gardens, a farmers’ market and café, two lakes to mitigate drainage and flooding, multi-use trails, open green spaces and pocket parks, and a private Montessori school.
“We hope to provide an amenity to the greater community of Ahwatukee,” said David N. Sabow, managing director for True Life’s Arizona operations. “Community-supported agriculture is a popular, emerging trend throughout the country. It really speaks to the sense of community, provides for healthy living, healthy lifestyle, and promotes central gathering places.
“It just has a really good feel and I think it’s perfect for Ahwatukee."
The property has been a source of contention since former owner Wilson Gee closed the 38-year-old, executive-length golf course in May 2013, saying it was losing money and no longer was viable for golf.
The site quickly became an eyesore as watering of the grounds ceased, weeds sprouted, trees died and the lakes were drained, leaving at times a stench while Gee sought a buyer.
“We have spent the better part of the past 14 months conceiving a plan that is special,” Sabow said. “Our goal was to breathe some fresh air into Ahwatukee. In contemplating how we achieve that, we considered many different concepts.”
Among them, Sabow said, was maintaining a golf course.
“We looked at trying to revitalize golf on this property,” Sabow said. “It didn’t make sense, and it still doesn’t make sense. This property will not be a golf course again.”
He explained that golf and demand for courses is declining nationwide as well as in Arizona.
Instead, Sabow says, True Life wants to “give Ahwatukee something special.”
To build Ahwatukee Farms on each side of South 44th Street between Knox and Warner roads, True Life must first gain signatures from 50 percent plus one of the roughly 5,200 property owners governed by Ahwatukee Board of Management to rewrite the Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs).
The current CC&Rs state that the property may be used only for a golf course. That was upheld in July by a Maricopa County Superior Court in an initial preliminary ruling.
“That ruling only says that under the current CC&Rs, it must be a golf course. The ruling was in response to our request for summary judgment,” said Sabow. “It’s just the beginning,” he said, adding that a court battle could last 2 to 4 years.
“If we get permission to amend the CC&Rs with the support of the community, it would allow us to move on with this plan,” he said. “We feel that the merits of our plan will win out. It’s not a run-of-the-mill subdivision. I think that the sense of community that comes with this project will prevail.”
Two years ago, potential land owner Pulte Homes failed to gain public support for its proposal that included open space, but with fewer amenities than the Ahwatukee Farms plan. Unable to secure consent to change restrictions, Pulte pulled its purchase offer and abandoned its plan.
“We’re fully aware that a typical production subdivision was never going to fly,” Sabow said. “We were up to speed on Pulte’s experience, and we knew from the start that we needed to deliver something very special to Ahwatukee.”
Sabow says it has done that with Ahwatukee Farms, which would include a water tower and pond in a roundabout on 44th Street at the center of the development and a nearby windmill to carry out the farm theme.
The urban agricultural theme would be more than skin deep. Centerpiece of the plan, Sabow says, is ambience created by the 5-acre community gardens, the farmers market and a café where farm-to-table produce would be served.
He’s aware it mirrors nearby Gilbert’s Agritopia in many ways.
“I’ve been in the land business for 25 years locally, and I’ve been aware of Agritopia since its infancy,” he said. “When we were working on this concept, I took a drive through there. I hadn’t visited in years. I just wanted to see what it feels like today as opposed to what it was on paper, and it just felt really good to me.
“Then when you look at the longstanding history of agriculture in the Ahwatukee and Kyrene areas, and you hear about the emerging trends of community-supported agriculture, farm to table, healthy lifestyle and promoting a sense of community by creating a central gathering place, it sort of came together at the right time. It started to all click,” he said.
Sabow envisions the community gardens being a membership-based co-op, administered by an Ahwatukee Farms home owners association. Details will evolve, he said.
Montessori, market and cafe
Shortly after True Life purchased the Lakes, the company was approached by owners of Desert Garden Montessori, a private nonprofit school at 5130 E. Warner Road, just west of Interstate 10, which was looking for a site for a larger campus. They were interested in buying a portion of the property for their new site.
The emerging concept was explained. A part of Desert Garden’s curriculum already included agriculture. A partnership was formed.
Sabow sees a new 5-acre Desert Garden campus at the Farms sharing in the community garden. In turn, the farmers market might share parking and perhaps use of a large open field on weekends when school is not in session.
The farmers market and café, the only commercial component of the project, would be open to the public.
Sabow said he plans to reach out to Ahwatukee Board of Management, which for 12 years has hosted a weekend farmers market that typically draws 1,500 to 2,000 people, about relocating that activity to the Farms.
It had outgrown the parking lot at ABM offices, on Warner just west of 48th Street, five years ago and began to pare participants, he said, adding that The Farms would have a larger space to offer.
While surrounding property is governed by Ahwatukee Board of Management, the former golf course property is not, although that could change, Sabow said. Ahwatukee Farms would have its own HOA, he said, adding that other neighborhoods have both ABM and a sub HOA.
“We are more than open to the idea of being included in ABM down the road,” Sabow said.
Trails, open space and homes
A minimum 30-foot buffer would surround the entire 101 acres of the Farms under the new plan.
“This is not walled off,” Sabow said. “In an effort to promote a healthy-living lifestyle, we are inviting all of Ahwatukee into this community, and we are incorporating a trail system throughout that provides connectivity from Lakeside Boulevard meandering all the way down to 48th Street.”
The central area would include wide boulevards leading to the neighborhoods, which would incorporate pocket parks.
“The idea is to have a community that resembles our renderings,” he continued, adding:
“We’re trying to sell a concept that will allow us to file a zoning case. We fully recognize the sensitivity of the situation, and we’re not looking to lift the deed restrictions without replacing them. We’re looking to impose restrictions that will be far greater than required by the city in a typical subdivision.”
Sabow said that, while the homes would not be custom-built, they would be higher-priced houses than those in the area surrounding the site, calling them “upscale.” He predicted they would drive up the value of the existing houses, which are more dense at a minimum of four to the acre.
He also stressed that the plan does not include multi-family apartment buildings of any kind.
Mitigating runoff, drainage
Hydrology was among concerns expressed by community members over Pulte’s plan. True Life hired the engineering firm Hilgart Wilson to assess the property, according to Sabow.
“There have been many, many claims that have been made that are not factual about ‘if one home is built here,’ ” Sabow said of possible flooding due to storm runoff from South Mountain. “The first thing we do when we evaluate the possibilities of a property is to evaluate the constraints. We did that.”
According to Sabow, the entire property is outside of Maricopa County Flood Control District floodplain boundaries, and no special-use permit or flood insurance is required.
“The number one constraint on this property, from my perspective, is the hydrology situation,” Sabow said. “When we’re assessing risk, that is of paramount importance. It is a very big deal.
“You’ll see a significant accommodation for drainage.”
The campaign begins
Against the vision of a rustic, farm-theme project with lushly landscaped high-end homes, the walkability of a trail system, connectivity of a school and satisfaction of growing produce is the reality that some community members will settle for nothing less than a new golf course on the property.
True Life’s prospects of persuading some members of the community will be formidable, Sabow admits.
And there are other hurdles.
While True Life is current on the property taxes, according to Sabow, in August 2015 Maricopa County assessed a penalty of roughly $1.4 million.
That assessment was placed under a law that gives golf-course owners a property-tax break but charges a 10-year look-back on the difference that would have been assessed on the property as vacant land. The penalty kicks in when a course is closed.
“We are contesting that penalty because, in our minds, the use has not yet changed,” Sabow said. “There needs to be something tangible that solidifies change of use so we have not paid the penalty.”
True Life begins taking its message to ABM property owners this week. Postcards are in the mail, and a website will be activated today – www.AhwatukeeFarms.com – that Sabow says will have comprehensive information and answers to frequently asked questions about its proposal.
“It is a sensitive topic. People will have questions,” Sabow said. “We want all of Ahwatukee to embrace this, so our outreach will be to much more than members of ABM and the adjacent households. We hope that the community recognizes that the vision we have for the property truly is an asset for all of Ahwatukee.
“True Life’s job is to be as transparent as possible. It takes time. We’re here for as long as it takes. We’re in this for the long haul,” said Sabow.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to the breaking nature of this news, AFN was unable to get response to the project from others in the community. Response from elected officials and interested parties will be our lead story in next week’s edition.
For more information on the proposal, visit True Life Companies’ website dedicated to the plan at www.AhwatukeeFarms.com.