Desert Foothills Background Report

Presently, Desert Foothills is one of three Character Areas studies taking place in the northern-most regions of Scottsdale, the others being Dynamite Foothills and the Boulders. Desert Foothills is distinguished from these two Character Areas by the extreme fragmentation in land ownership, typically one to five acres in size. This fragmentation in land ownership is a result of the Governmental Land Office (GLO) establishing a grid over a portion of this land and selling the parcels to homesteaders in the 1930s and '40s. The rural flavor, diversity in housing styles and lifestyles can be directly correlated to the fragmented land ownership. The Character Area Plan will help to preserve and enhance this unique area of the City while balancing the needs of future citizens.

The first phase of this character area study has involved research of existing and past conditions and projections of population, employment, and economics for the Desert Foothills area. Compiled in this report is information on current City policy, General Plan designations, environmental conditions, human environment, the planning history of the area and ownership patterns. This report in conjunction with public input through a survey and open house forums help to establish a foundation for the Character Area Plan.

In the next phase of this character area study, ideas, goals and issues will be identified. The general time line for the remainder of the study is shown in the chart above. The Character Area Plan will become City policy through its integration into the City’s General Plan. In addition, there may be performance standards, preferred design concepts and possibly a zoning overlay district or other zoing techniques which will help to achieve some of the goals established in each Character Area Plan (e.g. the preservation of the area’s character).


General History of the Area

In and around the Desert Foothills area there exists a rich heritage of Pueblo sites and pottery shards which record an ancient civilization who used this land extensively. In addition, there is evidence of the pioneer settlers whom established an authentic western heritage.

The first settlers of this area, the Hohokam (which translates into “those who have gone”) were drawn to the area by the abundant supply of wild foods. These innovative people were able to establish farms by building small dams and constructing canals which diverted water to their fields. For unknown reasons, the Hohokam abandoned their settlements in the mid 1400s.

In the 1850s, the first people of European heritage, gold miners, began to explore the area generally north of the Desert Foothills area. These miners were opposed by the Tonto Apache, who had used these lands for more than 200 years. In 1865, to help alleviate this conflict, the Army established an outpost, known as Fort McDowell along the Verde River. In 1870, the Army built a military wagon road a few miles to the north of the Desert Foothills area to link Fort McDowell with the other outposts to the north in areas such as Prescott. As part of the trek from the various outposts, soldiers often camped at the intersection of the military road and Cave Creek wash where the Village of Cave Creek was soon established. The original Cave Creek Road was built in 1873 to link Cave Creek with Phoenix, its smaller neighbor to the south.

In the late 1870s a more permanent group of settlers arrived in the general area. They were cattle ranchers who were attracted by the area’s grassland and water supplies. They built their homes and ranching facilities primarily to the north and east of the Desert Foothills area.

In the 1930s and 40s several dams were constructed along the Verde and Salt Rivers to assure an adequate supply of water to the growing agricultural interests in and around Phoenix. Construction workers from the dam sites would spend their weekends in Cave Creek and its saloons. Once the dams were completed, the workers left and the town settled back into obscurity.

During this same period in time, homesteading became dominant in the Desert Foothills area. In order to stimulate the settlement of this and other areas in the western United States, Congress passed the Homestead Act and the Desert-Land Entries Act. These acts permitted individuals to stake claim to land owned by the United States Land Office (later known as the Government Land Office, GLO). By filing the appropriate paper work, paying a nominal application fee, placing minimal improvements and residing on the land for a specific increment of time, the individual would assume the outright ownership of the land. These claims ranged in size from an entire section of land (640 acres) to as small as a few acres.

One of the first homesteaders in Desert Foothills was K.T. Palmer who established his homestead on 640 acres between Pinnacle Peak Mountain and today’s Pima Road (section 31). Palmer’s autobiography, “For Lands Sake” depicts many of the challenges of the early homesteaders and the steady growth experienced in the area.

Palmer resided on his land full-time for nearly twenty-seven years. Many of the ranchers who had used these lands prior to the homesteaders arrival were opposed to the private settlement because it restricted access for their livestock. Many of the initial settlers erected barb-wire fences to prevent access and grazing of the land. The ranchers typically cut these fences to grant access for their livestock, causing many conflicts between the two groups.

Palmer had many national and international visitors who were anxious to see and experience the lifestyle of a desert dweller. No electricity, a limited water supply (which was initially trucked in), a constant threat from rattlesnakes, scorpions and black widow spiders, in addition to the extreme summer heat, made this lifestyle quite intriguing and somewhat romantic to the easterner and mid-westerner.

Palmer, an attorney, brokered many land deals in and around Pinnacle Peak and the Desert Foothills area some of which had been out-of-state visitors to his homestead. Later, Palmer formed a partnership with Tom Darlington to help carry out a dream they both had of building a town from scratch. That town, Carefree, was promoted from its conception as a town where the rich and famous would come to retreat in the 1950s.

Palmer actually sold much of his interest in and around the Pinnacle Peak area in smaller parcels to help fund his vision in Carefree. He later moved to Carefree where he saw his vision come together.

In the 1950s, suburbanization began to run rampant throughout the metropolitan area. Agricultural fields were being converted to residential uses at a record pace. In the 1970s, planned residential developments such as McCormick Ranch, Fountain Hills, Rio Verde and Pinnacle Peak, among others, were introduced. At the time, many of these developments were distant from the urban center of the metropolitan area.


Desert Foothills Area Context

Today, the Desert Foothills area is surrounded by numerous master planned communities both in Scottsdale and Phoenix: Tatum Ranch and Tatum Highlands (Phoenix) to the west; proposed/planned Amberjack, Winfield and Bellasera developments and Terravita and The Boulders to the north; Desert Highlands and Troon North to the east; Grayhawk and the proposed Paradise Ridge (Phoenix) to the south. These master planned communities contrast with the rural character, equestrian ranches and diverse housing styles occurring in the Desert Foothills area. As alluded to earlier, the development occurring in the Desert Foothills area can be correlated to the fragmented land ownership pattern, typically one to five acres in size. The master planned communities typically develop on large tracts of land. These master planned developments allow for some flexibility not available with smaller parcels to achieve community wide goals such as scenic corridors, public park and school site dedications, public trails and public paths.

Directly to the west of the study area are approximately four and one half square miles of Maricopa County or unincorporated land. This land has been subdivided or divided by the Government Land Office (GLO) through the decades and has a similar fragmentation in land ownership to the Desert Foothills. The majority of this area consist of 2.5 acre residential parcels with equestrian privileges.

In recent years, there has been a tremendous amount of growth occurring in the study area, both subdivided and unsubdivided. A number of subdivisions along Scottsdale Road and south of Dynamite Boulevard have been constructed or are planned in the near future. These planned subdivisions occupy the largest parcels contained in this study area, typically between 80 and 160 acres, but some as small as 20 acres. (See map above.) One of the common threads shared by these subdivisions is that the lots follow the natural terrain versus lots paralleling the major roadways, and thus, preserve the natural desert washes. The State Land Trust controls several significant holdings, approximately 1,000 acres within the study area and thousands of acres around the periphery of the study area. A quarter mile section of State Land fronts the eastern side of Pima Road. In addition, there are two entire sections of State Land located at the northwest corner of Pima and Jomax Roads and the southeast corner of Scottsdale and Jomax Roads. However, only one-half of this latter State Land section (north of the A.P.S. transmission lines) is incorporated into the study area. (See map below.)

According to State statutes, these State Lands are sold for their highest and best use to help fund education and other programs in Arizona. The Desert Preservation Task Force, appointed by the City Council, has targeted many of the State Lands within Scottsdale as part of a future desert open space system. The goal of the desert open space system is to provide continuous visual and functional linkages between Phoenix, Scottsdale, Maricopa County and the Tonto National Forest. Currently, the Scottsdale McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission is exploring opportunities such as the Arizona Preserve Initiative (API) and various funding mechanisms to achieve this goal.

The Desert Greenbelts as planned and approved seek to alleviate flooding in parts of north Scottsdale and remove properties out of the AO Zone alluvial fan flood hazard. The Rawhide Wash is one of three major Desert Greenbelts proposed in north Scottsdale. The main impact of this Desert Greenbelt on the study area will be the construction of a large detention basin and earthen dam located at the northwest corner of Pima and Jomax Roads (State Land). This basin will occupy an estimated 100 acres of this section of State Land.


Contextual Relationship

The City of Scottsdale is approximately 185 square miles in size. Naturally, with a geographical area of this caliber there are many distinguishable natural and physical features which help delineate character areas. However, these areas are not mutually exclusive, they must interact with one another to develop a strong viable and sustainable community.

What separates the Desert Foothills area from the encompassing areas is the land ownership pattern. The fragmented land ownership of predominantly one to five acre parcels has helped to establish a rural desert character unlike the master planned communities which surround the Desert Foothills area.

Desert Foothills provides opportunities for those who do not want to live in a controlled, deed restricted environment, for those who enjoy horse ownership and activities, and for those who seek a setting with minimal physical structuring of the setting. The low density and few facilities of the area best support an independent, empty-nester or retired type of lifestyle.

Even though the surrounding master planned communities are quite different in character from the Desert Foothills area, they provide an important function. Many of these master planned communities offer neighborhood services, grocery stores, parks, schools, scenic corridors and legal public trail easements. These amenities provide essential services to a growing and strong residential base in the Desert Foothills area. The character differences between this area and the master planned areas can be sharp, thereby creating visual, lifestyle and functional conflicts.

This interaction between these unique areas of the city is vital to help establish and maintain a high quality of life for all citizens of the community, particularly since the facilities and services that support the Desert Foothills area will tend to be located in adjacent character areas.



Some issues and topics that will be key components of the Desert Foothills Character Plan are:

  • CityShape 2020 - The Six Guiding Principles provide a new foundation to examine all planning decisions in the future. The character plan itself is based on the recommendations of CityShape 2020.
  • Edges and Transitions - One major benefit of the character planning process is that each character area will overlap with surrounding character areas. The Desert Foothills study includes a planning area and a surrounding contextual study area to allow for the examination of edges and transitions to other areas.
  • Hydrology - This general area typically experiences unpredictable sheet flows and flash floods during periods of heavy precipitation. These unpredictable flows are a result of a network of washes which make up an alluvial fan. In addition, the dirt streets which are in some areas two feet lower than the existing grade, act as interceptor channels, and thus, change the natural hydrology. These hydrological issues will become increasingly important as more individuals begin to build their homes in Desert Foothills.
  • Desert Preservation Task Force - The City Council appointed Task Force recommended a desert open space system, preferred design standards and an expanded shared-use trail system. Some of these recommendations will have implications for the Desert Foothills area.
  • Scenic Corridors - The Desert Foothills Scenic Drive along Scottsdale Road and the scenic corridors along Dynamite Boulevard and Pima Road help to provide a sense of openness and mitigate the impact of these higher traveled roads on adjacent development. However, the ability to achieve these scenic easements in an area typified by a fragmented ownership pattern is complex and will need to be clarified.
  • Historical Trail Use - In the past, many trails were used which encroached on private lands. As development occurs on these private lands these routes are sometimes no longer accessible. The city has received trail dedication (where designated in the General Plan Trails Map as a trail corridor) from master planned communities, however, the city has experienced difficulty in receiving trail dedication from small parcel owners.
  • Local Services - In the future, as this area continues to grow, services such as a local grocery store and neighborhood services may be needed. Where these facilities may be located central to the population and the sensitive integration of these facilities into existing neighborhoods will be crucial. In addition, schools and parks may be needed to service the growing number of families moving into the area. These facilities should be oriented to the rural desert character of the area.
  • Annexation - Lands to the west of the Desert Foothills area have been discussed in the past for annexation (Black Mountain Area Study, 1989). To date, the majority interest among property owners in these unincorporated areas has been to remain in the County, but in the future, it is possible that property owners to the west will ask to be annexed. This area is currently served by the City of Scottsdale water delivery system and may be served by Scottsdale sewers in the future.
Planning and Development Services

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Scottsdale, AZ 85251