With only six days left until 2018 fades into history, Ahwatukee residents can pretty comfortably declare the year has brought some significant changes to their political, social and even geological landscape.
Here’s a look at some of the more noteworthy changes the year is leaving in its wake.
Club West Golf Course
The year began with promise for the 2,400 homeowners in Club West as they greeted 2018 with a verdant golf course that turned into a wasteland in stunning time after the Phoenix Water Services Department turned off the tap for then-owner Richard Breuninger’s failure to pay a tab that now approaches $300,000.
It first turned to brown in summer 2016 when the city first turned off the water after Gee ran up a $130,000 bill. He turned off the water, saying he could not afford the potable water the course feeds on.
Breuninger blamed his own woes on the management company he hired to run day-to-day operations, but that company had only one employee – a longtime associate with whom he once worked.
As the course got browner, Breuninger found himself deeper in the red and stopped paying on the $1.3 million note he signed with Wilson Gee to buy the course on Dec. 1, 2017. Gee foreclosed on the note, but Breuninger tried an end run by filing bankruptcy, delaying the foreclosure by a few weeks.
Although bankruptcy court dismissed his petition for failure to follow court guidelines on appropriate paperwork, Breuninger filed for reinstatement of his case. Gee’s lawyers filed a blistering response, asking the judge to dismiss it again.
More than three months after those filings, the judge has still not ruled, though Gee told AFN, “My lawyers tell me there’s a 99 percent chance it’s mine.”
Not waiting any longer for bankruptcy court, Gee has now put the course up for sale for $1 million with a condition that the buyer also put down another $1 million on the pipeline that Ahwatukee businessman Rande Leonard hopes to install sometime late next year that will provide the course with cheaper water.
Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course
Since the course remains the same barren mess it was shortly after Gee closed the 101-acre site in 2013, the changes that 2018 brought are more in the legal realm as the result of Superior Court Judge John Hannah’s ruling that land use regulations required that a golf course was the only permissible development.
The ruling prompted The True Life Companies to officially abandon its nearly 18-month fight to have those regulations changed so it could build houses. True Life walked away from a $9 million deal it had made with Gee to buy the course, leaving both Ahwatukee Lakes and the court’s judgment in Gee’s hands.
Gee is appealing the ruling, with his lawyers challenging the court’s right to dictate a particular use of the land that they claim is financially unfeasible.
Meanwhile, True Life owes the city more than $165,000 for code violations for failing to keep the site free of debris and overgrowth.
It’s unclear how long the appeal will last, but it’s possible it could take years to resolve – leaving the approximate 5,400 Ahwatukee Lakes homeowners with the same scarred terrain they began this year looking at.
True Life’s capitulation also means that Desert Garden Montessori, which was to get a new campus if the company’s ill-fated Ahwatukee Farms plan had materialized, is left still looking for a place to expand beyond its campus on Warner Road near the I-10.
Though the scope of the much-heralded Democratic “blue wave” nationally is still a subject of debate, there’s little doubt Ahwatukee saw a tsunami at the ballot box as only Kyrene school board candidate Margaret Pratt became the sole Ahwatukee Republican to claim a victory out of Election 2018.
The biggest casualty: Jill Norgaard of Ahwatukee, who was denied a third term in the House in Legislative District 18. Democrats swept LD 18, which includes Ahwatukee, as Rep. Mitzi Epstein won a second term and Jennifer Jermaine of Chandler knocked off Norgaard.
State Sen. Sean Bowie, another Ahwatukee resident, won a second term after bludgeoning Tempe commercial pilot Frank Schmuck in a replay of the 2016 race that became one of the most expensive of all legislative campaigns this year in Arizona as the two candidates amassed a combined total of over $500,000 in donations and spending.
Pratt bested the field of four candidates for two board positions – the other went to Tempe lawyer Kevin Walsh – after members Bernadette Coggins and Kristen Middleton opted not to seek another term. Her victory also kept the geographical representation on the Kyrene board intact since she replaces Middleton, an Ahwatukee resident, and takes a seat alongside Ahwatukee resident John King.
But Ahwatukee lost any representation on the Tempe Union High School Governing Board after local attorney Don Fletcher failed again to capture the seat, losing to Tempe residents Brian Garcia and Andres Barraza.
The only Ahwatukee member of that panel, Brandon Schmoll, opted not to run again. Schmoll, a Republican, also lost his reelection bid as constable in the Kyrene Justice District.
The Justice District is now in the hand of Ahwatukee Democrats after Kent Rini beat Schmoll and Sharron Sauls defeated Bob Robson to replace retiring John McComish as justice of the peace.
Ahwatukee also had a favorite son, Moses Sanchez, in the four-way runoff for the next Phoenix Mayor. But Sanchez came in third, leaving former council members Kate Gallego and Daniel Valenzuela to duke it out in a special election next March.
A freeway runs through it
With a long and bitter federal court fight over, the South Mountain Freeway continued to carve an indelible mark in Ahwatukee’s landscape as crews continued work on Pecos Road and began slicing through the South Mountain Preserve.
In a surprise development, the Arizona Department of Transportation reversed its decision of five years ago not to build an interchange at 32nd Street. ADOT back then said a citizens advisory group didn’t want it, but ADOT took a new survey this year and the overwhelming response from some 1,300 residents favored its construction.
Not materializing this year were the towering sound walls that will start rising next year along practically the entire Pecos piece of the 22-mile, eight-lane connector between the Chandler and 59th Avenue interchanges of I-10. When they do, they will be within probably about 20 feet of homes right at the intersection of the freeway and 32nd Street.
One unexpected component of the freeway project involved Liberty lane, which ADOT changed to one-way in April to relocate city water lines that interfered with the freeway.
Though ADOT promised to finish the work in June, a series of snafus involving the area’s geology and the pipeline manufacturer kept Liberty Lane one way right into fall. Crews still have some cleanup work to do.
Just as it did throughout the state, the Red for Ed teachers protest – which led the State Legislature to agree to Gov. Doug Ducey’s plan for a 20-percent salary increase for teachers over the next three years – swept through all public schools in Ahwatukee. Teachers got a 10 percent hike in the current school year and have been promised 5 percent hikes in each of the next two school years.
Schools were closed in late April for six days as teachers took to the State Capitol to demand better pay.
While the movement had little impact on elections in Arizona, there were a few exceptions that included Desert Vista High teacher Lara Bruner, who was the top vote-getter in a six-way race for two seats on the Chandler Unified school board.
Changes on the governing board weren’t the only ones affecting both Tempe Union and Kyrene schools, as a new superintendent took the reins of the former while officials in the latter district continued to implement a number of major changes.
Tempe Union Superintendent Kenneth Baca retired June 30 and was replace by Kevin Mendivil.
Kyrene began implementing a broad series of changes in the district to give older children more choices in electives and introduce new programs such as the International Baccalaureate program at Kyrene Middle School in Tempe and a K-8 campus at Kyrene Traditional Academy in Chandler.
Work on the KTA campus was just completed with the opening of a new multi-purpose building that includes a gymnasium and a stage/performance area – and makes it a pre-K-8 campus, the first in the district.
At one point more than five years ago, Kyrene was considering closing the school because of declining enrollment, but under Principal Marianne Lescher, enrollment has grown over six years to 700 students. The new building will enable it to grow more – and help the district give parents the chance to keep their kids in the same school until they’re ready to go off to high school.
The rash of deadly school shootings in the U.S. prompted both Tempe Union and Kyrene to undertake additional physical alterations to campuses to make them safer. Tempe Union closed off doorways and basically left only one way in and one way out at Mountain Pointe High, considered the least secure of its seven campuses.
The district and Phoenix Police also signed an agreement to ensure an armed school resource officer will be a Monday-Friday presence at both Mountain Pointe and Desert Vista High.
SROs are expensive since districts usually have to pick up the cost of their city salaries and benefits, and Phoenix’s reluctance to do that leaves the three Kyrene middle schools in Ahwatukee without them.
But the board will be considering a new plan early next year to install new technology – the first of its kind in Arizona – that will bolster security at all its 25 schools.
Water mysteries and controversy
When 2017 ended, hundreds of Ahwatukee homeowners were hoping that a task force of local residents assembled by city Councilman Sal DiCiccio would unravel the mystery of huge spikes in their water bills that occurred for one or two months over the summer of 2017.
But the task force, involving seasoned technicians and engineers of different disciplines, gave up this year after failing to find anything amiss with city water meters or its related systems for tracking water use.
Meanwhile, a new controversy involving all Phoenix water customers, including those in Ahwatukee, surfaced this fall as the Water Services Department sought City Council approval for back-to-back rate increases to cover $1 billion in upgrades that administrators say are desperately needed.
Though council defeated the request a month ago, DiCiccio said interim Mayor Thelda Williams is bringing back the proposal for another vote next year.
Water Services said the rate hike would cost the average consumer another $6 a month in 2019 and then another $6 a month on top of that the following year. But Water Services Director Kathryn Sorenson, in an appearance before the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee, didn’t define “average,” though it presumably does not include swimming pools.
Comings and goings
Some religious congregations in Ahwatukee saw several major leadership changes with the sad passing of two longtime leaders and the elevation of a third.
The Rev. Don Schneider, the retired longtime pastor of Mountain View Lutheran Church, died after a brief illness. He was credited with helping several churches of other denominations take root in Ahwatukee in the early 1980s by allowing then-small congregations to use his campus and was also a huge community booster whose work helped get Ahwatukee’s first ballfields, among other improvements.
Also passing was Father Bob Binta, pastor of the Parish of St. Benedict’s. The much-beloved priest helped lead the congregation to start a building fund to build a new church that leaders hope will be open in time for Christmas 2019.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Deborah Hutterer, an Ahwatukee resident, was installed as the sixth bishop of the Grand Canyon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a job that involves overseeing 89 congregations serving 44,000 members spread across Arizona, southern Nevada and St. George, Utah. At the same time, she’ll have to stay in touch with 64 other bishops across the country who also oversee synods, which are similar to dioceses in other Christian churches.
Two major additions to Ahwatukee’s local business scene came in when 2017 gave way to 2018.
Mountainside Fitness returned to the place where it started as it opened a gym in the old Sports Authority building at a strip mall on the northeastern corner of Ray Road and 48th Street. Almost simultaneously, the massive Urban Air Adventure Park enabled kids and adults to bounce on trampolines and specially designed walls to their heart’s content when it opened next to the fitness complex.
The Ahwatukee Board of Management saw big success in getting the city to start sprucing up the neighborhood by planting more than 125 trees and a variety of flowers around 48th Street and the Warner-Elliot Loop, painting and replacing beat-up utility boxes and other enhancements.
Pickleball enthusiasts saw the opening of an 18-court complex at Pecos Park that makes Ahwatukee a mecca for the fast-growing sport.
And there were some things that keep Ahwatukee special that didn’t change: The switch was turned on for the annual Festival of Lights. The two fundraisers that keep the lights burning – the Kick-Off Party and the Wine and Beer Tasting Festival – went off without a hitch. The 22nd Ahwatukee Bowl saw Desert Vista break a seven-year drought and capture the trophy. The Kiwanis Club of Ahwatukee held its 42nd annual Easter Parade. And the Ahwatukee Foothills News turned 40 years old.