By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

For years a 14.27-acre site slated for a shopping center sat vacant near Val Vista Drive and Ray Road while commercial developed around it.

Gilbert developer New Village Homes came before the planning commission last week to change that by requesting to build 101 single-family homes on the land.

“Obviously when a parcel has not been developed for 20 years the question is ‘What is the right use?’” said land-use attorney Stephen Earl, representing the owner. “When development passes over a site, you are left with what do you do?”

Earl said there is already a great deal of retail in the area, one mile to the north and south of the site.

The land is 1.2 miles northwest of the SanTan Village Mall and SanTan Village Marketplace Shopping Center, and neighborhood stores exist to the north and east, according to planning staff.

It’s also located two miles north of Loop 202, but new commercial development has been gravitating south along the freeway corridor.

Most cities are also grappling with infill that hasn’t developed, according to Earl.

Often, what happens are apartments or some other higher density townhouses occur on those sites, but what New Village Homes proposed is different, he said.

The concept for Andalucia Villas is a Spanish village with a European feel, Earl said.

The private streets would be cobblestone or pavers and each two-story home would have either the option of a front courtyard or a front detached single-story bonus room and oversize glass patio doors that open to outdoor living, he added.

The courtyards and bonus rooms would be built close to the street to give the neighborhood a more intimate feel. No street parking would be allowed and “fire lane, no parking” signs would be posted along the streets to ensure that.

“The whole idea is to make it pedestrian dominate and not the car,” Earl said.

And the small backyard would be a selling point for young professionals and empty-nesters who don’t want to spend their Saturdays doing yard work, according to Earl. The homes would sell in the high $300,000s and higher, he said.

“This is a very unique project,” Earl said.

That may be so – but not for some residents of the Ashland Ranch neighborhood, which surrounds the site to the south and west.

“They can paint a nice picture,” said resident Andrew Black, one of three who spoke against the project. “But when you paint a pig, a pig is still a pig.”

Black said the area is already too busy and the proposed housing will add to it.

“I think it’s a bad move on the city’s part if they allow it to take place,” he said.

“It’s a little too much,” said resident Ron Marks. He said more cars would not only be on Val Vista Drive but on streets in his neighborhood as people take their children to Ashland Ranch Elementary School, which sits west of the community.

He complained about the density, which would be about seven housing units per acre compared with Ashland Ranch’s two to 3 1/2 housing units per acre.

Resident Len Stupski said he was not opposed to the proposed housing, just to the density – which he compared to cramming 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound bag.

He worried about safety should a fire occur, given the homes are so close together. He also didn’t care for the proposal to put sidewalks only on one side of the streets.

“I don’t think it’s safe for that amount of homes they want to put on that property,” he said.

Amy Petersen was the only resident to speak in support of the homes.

She said she was initially extremely concerned with the project because she knows of a neighborhood of cluster homes that she said has quite a bit of crime. But her concern lessened after she saw how upscale the homes would be, she said.

As for school crowding, it’s not an issue because nearby charter schools are popular, she added.

She said she has just completed a nearly three-year remodel of her home that she plans to live in for a long time.

“I really don’t want to live next to commercial,” she said. “We are thrilled they are building a community like this.”

Planner Keith Newman told commissioners the developer has held three neighborhood meetings, where attendees expressed concerns.

Those concerns included more traffic on Val Vista Drive and Ray Road, the visual impact of two-story houses on their views, potential noise from a park proposed in the development’s southeast corner and more students crowding into Ashland Ranch Elementary.

That said, staff approved of the proposed project.

Newman said the diverse housing project would support the town’s thriving commercial development in that immediate area.

Vice Chairman Carl Bloomfield said because the residents were concerned with traffic, he asked if a study was done on it.

Newman said if the site remained commercial and developed as such, it would generate more than 7,000 vehicle trips a day compared with more than 700 daily vehicle trips if the land developed as proposed.

It’s a drastic reduction in daily trips because only people who live in that neighborhood would be entering and exiting the community three to four times a day, Newman said.

Chairman Brian Andersen raised a point brought up by a resident about the possibility of renting out the bonus room.

Newman said there was nothing in town code to prohibit that, but Earl said that it would be prohibited in the development’s Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions.

Commissioners also questioned if the 26-foot-wide streets provided enough room for fire trucks to maneuver, and Commissioner Daniel Cifuentes asked if the developer would consider building some of the homes for entry-level buyers.

Overall, commissioners complimented the developer for the level of detail and said the project was a good one.

“I’m grateful for the new project,” Bloomfield said. “And I’m excited to see it come to fruition.”

The Commission voted 6-0 to recommend Town Council approves the developer’s request for a minor General Plan amendment, allowing for the development.

Newman said the matter should come before the council on Nov. 1.

Black, who left before the vote was cast, said many more residents opposed to the project didn’t bother showing up at the hearing because they felt “they are going——— to shove it down our throats.”