11 votes decide fate of Tusayan building ordinance

Residents reject bid to allow taller buildings in Grand Canyon gateway community

The National Park Service said visitors to parks in Arizona last year spent $995 million at nearby businesses, like those in the town of Tusayan, the gateway to the Grand Canyon.

Sophie Kunthara/Cronkite News

The National Park Service said visitors to parks in Arizona last year spent $995 million at nearby businesses, like those in the town of Tusayan, the gateway to the Grand Canyon.

TUSAYAN, Ariz. -- Tusayan, Arizona, will remain a small community nestled among the ponderosa pines after residents rejected a bid Nov. 7 to raise the building height to 65 feet.

Located about a mile from the Grand Canyon’s South Entrance Station, Tusayan is home to hotels, restaurants, a few retail shops and the National Geographic Visitor Center and IMAX theater — by far the town’s tallest building.

In April, the town’s planning and zoning commission and town council considered a measure to raise the building height from 35-40 feet to 65 feet for future development opportunities. The height increase was requested by STILO Development Group USA, the Italian development partner of Tusayan businessman Elling Halvorson, which hopes to build an upscale resort near the town featuring hotels, restaurants, retail and office space and housing.

Town manager Eric Duthie said representatives of STILO had requested the item be put on the town council’s agenda for consideration, but that the company was not guaranteed a favorable decision on the matter.

In April, the Tusayan planning and zoning commission, after consulting with the town planner, voted 3-1 to increase the building height to 65 feet across five zones — commercial, multi-family residential (apartment housing) and planned community (properties at Ten X Ranch and Kotzin Ranch). During that hearing, Tusayan resident and activist Clarinda Vail, Alicyn Gitlin of the Sierra Club and the National Park Service (NPS) spoke out against the measure.

The groups expressed concerns with the measure, including its impact on the area’s famous dark skies, potential flight collisions and the adverse impacts more visitors would have on natural resources, specifically water. They said they had been given very little opportunity to provide input before the ordinance was put forth for a vote.

After the public hearing, the town council unanimously passed the measure, stating that the increased capacity to build upwards would enable more affordable housing opportunities for the town, which already suffers from a critical housing shortage.

Vail, whose family owns Red Feather Lodge, created the Grand Canyon, Not Grand High Rises organization and organized a petition drive to have the measure placed on a ballot for residents to decide. About 50 percent of the town’s registered voters, 132 people, turned out for the Nov. 7 special election. The final result showed 60 votes in favor of the height increase and 71 opposed. The vote will be officially canvassed at the council’s December meeting.

Duthie said the town has set a positive example to others about respecting the due process rights of its residents.

“We had a great turnout and I applaud everyone who came out to vote,” he said.

Vail said she was pleased with the results.

“We didn’t have any idea what the vote would be, so we were thrilled to see that residents are more for protecting the Grand Canyon than they are for continuing to give Italian developers and Elling Halvorson, via the Tusayan Town Council, everything they want,” she said.

Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Chris Lehnertz wrote the town a letter in April requesting more time for consideration of the issue. She said the park was committed to working with the town on providing sustainable and compatible visitor experiences. One of the park’s earlier concerns was how to deal with an increased number of multi-day park visitors resulting from the additional accommodations.

“The town of Tusayan is an important partner and neighbor to Grand Canyon National Park,” Lehnertz said. “We recognize the needs of our shared communities and will look for opportunities to work together for the betterment of Grand Canyon residents.”

Alicyn Gitlin, who spoke out against the measure in April on behalf of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, said it was time for STILO developers to listen to what the people of Tusayan want.

“The citizens of Tusayan don’t want Grand Canyon’s epic vistas and legendary night skies forever changed under their watch,” she said. “People come to the region for the natural beauty of the landscape and those who live in the region respect that. What is so tough about building a properly scaled development that is respectful of our amazing landscape?”

Tusayan Mayor Craig Sanderson expressed disappointment with the results.

“It has been seven years since the town incorporated on the promise of affordable housing opportunities, and yet today … we still have an entire community that lives in company property,” he said.

Sanderson said, however, he accepts the election results and understands the controversy. He said ballot measures sometimes help elected officials “feel the pulse of the people we represent.”

Sanderson said the election results would not stop progress in the town and that the town is dedicated to moving forward on its affordable housing plans, including the 20-acre development at Ten X Ranch. The town’s other proposed housing development at Kotzin Ranch has been on hold since the U.S. Forest Service denied a road easement in March 2016.

With the proposed resort development at a standstill, for now, Vail said she and her organization will remain vigilant and bring forth referendums, if needed.

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