West Valley residents concerned as developers plan thousands of homes for rural communities – The Business Journals

Susan Morgan moved with her family 20 years ago to a 5-acre home in Wittmann, a small rural community that sits just outside of Surprise but is part of the city’s plans for future growth to the northwest.
Over two decades, Morgan said she worked hard to build out a livestock ranch at her home, which serves as a sanctuary and adoption facility for miniature donkeys.
“It’s my life’s work,” she said.
But as more people move to Arizona and growth continues to move outward in the Valley, Morgan, as well as other residents, are concerned that new proposals for master-planned communities and increased density could negatively affect the longtime rural homes, cattle ranches and existing water resources.
“I know why I live out here, because I have the animals. I need to live out here and now you’re trying to take that away from us?” she told the Business Journal.
In recent years, rural communities such as Wittmann and Morristown just outside of Surprise, a suburb located northwest of Phoenix, have seen more developers eyeing the vast desert land for thousands of new homes and a massive rail complex. The city itself is also experiencing substantial growth across its retail, industrial and housing sectors with numerous projects planned.
These rural communities, which are part of the city of Surprise’s future planning areas, have opposed development in the past. But now, more progress is being made in the fast-growing region, which has been suffering from a housing shortage and high rent prices. While development could bring more residents, services and jobs to the city, it could also create increased traffic and density and change the landscape of the rural areas.
“The infrastructure that is available to us cannot handle the kind of growth they’re trying to put on us,” she said. “If [developers] came in and said, ‘Hey we’re going to put all these houses and this is what we’re going to do about the roads and water,’ then OK, but you can’t make water.” 
In the past year, several master-planned communities have been presented to Maricopa County with hopes of annexing thousands of acres into the city of Surprise. While growth has been planned for this area of the Valley for years, the homes are now also set to support the potential onslaught of workers at the planned Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. plant and BNSF’s proposed rail and logistics center.
Recently, the Texas-based freight giant told residents that their new center could comprise 30 million square feet of industrial development in addition to an intermodal facility, where cargo is transferred between trains and trucks, across 4,000 acres. The company estimated that its facility will produce 11,500 construction jobs and represent $1.5 billion in one-time construction economic impacts.
“There are an average 100,000 people moving into the Valley a year, and of course those people need a place to live, there’s a housing shortage we’re aware of, but more importantly, they need product, they need commodities, they need things to live, they need materials to build homes,” the company said in a virtual neighborhood meeting in October. “The demand for this type of facility is off the charts. … BNSF is nearing capacity at its Phoenix facilities, both intermodal and railcar, they must expand, and this is the perfect location to do it.”
The rail complex will be designed similar to the Logistics Park Kansas City, a 3,000-acre industrial and rail center that BNSF said has produced thousands of jobs. The area will be ideal for companies looking for sites in close proximity to a large population base and rail — the city of Surprise currently has about 150,000 people and is projected to continue growing. BNSF is holding its first in-person neighborhood meeting on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Asante Preparatory Academy cafeteria, which is located at 23251 N. 166th Dr. in Surprise. Meeting details can be found online here.
In recent years, significant progress has been made in some of the outermost parts of Surprise on new housing communities like Asante and Desert Oasis, which were built by developers such as Landsea Homes and Pulte Homes.
Now, several master-planned communities are proposed even farther west on the outskirts of Surprise and Buckeye, totaling up to 17,600 potential homes across nearly 4,300 acres. Land Advisors Organization data shows that at least $61.4 million in land sales or listings have occurred in the past year in the far northwest part of the Valley, including BNSF’s $49.1 million acquisition of 3,500 acres.
The new projects are proposed for these areas and comprise:
Right now, several of the proposed projects are located in Maricopa County but have future plans to annex into the city of Surprise for reasons such as providing services and infrastructure through the city. In addition to housing, retail and other commercial projects will also be developed to support the growing number of residents.
As more plans have surfaced for housing, rural residents have also started to push back against development with concerns over wildlife, pollution, safety, infrastructure and water, especially as the Southwest struggles with a drought and declining water levels in Colorado River reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
In Pinal County and the West Valley, homebuilders are running into issues securing water supply for their projects. The Arizona Department of Water Resources has questioned whether existing groundwater supply is enough for the new developments and has already sent deficiency letters for certificate of assured water supply applications for two homebuilder projects that rely on groundwater in the West Valley.
About 200 residents gathered on a Sunday afternoon in late September to discuss the future of their communities in opposition of annexation and increased density for housing in projects such as Santa Barbara Ranch. Many residents said they grew up or spent most of their lives in areas like Wittmann and Morristown to build up and maintain horse and cattle ranches and are concerned about the impacts of growth.
“If they come up here with all these houses and drill wells, and my well goes dry, what am I supposed to do and what will they do for me? We don’t have water for another 2,000 people,” a Morristown resident said during the September meeting.
With the new density, annexation and rezoning proposed for the nearby areas, Morgan said she is now concerned this could impact how many animals she or others can have on their properties.  Morgan said living in the rural community is a great lifestyle and that she is not against growth or people moving to the area.
“The density is what creates the problems,” she said. 
A petition opposing rezoning for the rural communities has so far garnered nearly 1,000 signatures. The petition lists concerns about water use and existing wells in the area, density of five to six homes per acre, building on open range cattle land and potential pollution from the rail facility.
The communities have also pulled together more than 600 letters against annexation and 1,370 in-person petition signatures. Residents also formed a new entity, Keep Us Rural LLC, to serve Wittmann, Mobile Gardens, Circle City, Whispering Ranch and Morristown for the preservation of the rural areas.
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