WITH UNBRIDLED FUROR, THEY SAY BLOCK WALL INFRINGES ON HORSE PATH
Controversy over a homeowner’s block wall that extends into an equestrian-path easement in South Tempe has reared its head again as residents of nearby horse-property neighborhoods urge the city to enforce the law that they say is on their side.
At its Jan. 14 virtual meeting, which is archived on Tempe 11, City Council listened to an overview of the situation from City Attorney Judi Baumann and a prepared statement from South Tempe resident Matt Schmehl.
The controversy was spurred last fall when a resident of Shady Lane Estates hired a surveyor and ultimately built a 328-foot-long block wall that extends 10 feet into the bridle path just west of the neighborhood.
Tempe officials have said it is not a city matter but a private-property issue, and therefore the city has no jurisdiction.
“City staff has looked into the issue and we have found no indication that the particular bridle path in the Shady Lanes Estates neighborhood is recorded as a public easement,” Baumann said.
“We have been in contact with the homeowners association and understand that the wall was approved by their architectural committee, so that’s just a very brief background to make the public aware of the issue and the fact that the city has spent some time looking into it.”
The horse race is far from over, disgruntled neighbors say.
The city approved the Shady Lane Estates development in 1995. The neighborhood’s plat map—the official document that records boundary locations, nearby streets, flood zones and any easements or rights of way—contains clear references to the path easement.
However, an Aug. 17, 2020, email from Shady Lanes HOA President Larry Heywood to Christa Zamora, a South Tempe resident who objects to the wall, states that the neighborhood’s architectural committee did not object to the building of the wall “as long as the owner of Lot 7 adhered to any restrictions by the City of Tempe or any other approvals required. … If there are easements on a lot, compliance with the requirements of any such easements are the responsibility of the lot owner.”
An email last March from Ryan Levesque, Tempe Deputy Community Development Director for Planning, to the surveyor and the Shady Lane Estates homeowner at the center of the tempest stated that:
“You are seeking to abandon an easement, but because the city required the easement at the time of the zoning action (condition of approval), the reversal of a condition of zoning would require going through the very same process that the condition was placed on the property (an ordinance through a public hearing).”
There was no public hearing before the wall went up.
Schmehl, who spoke at the Jan. 14 City Council meeting, said he represented the sentiments of many residents of his neighborhood as well as those in Buena Vista Ranchos and Calle de Caballos. Those neighborhoods are unique in that they have the only bridle-path system in Tempe.
Schmehl told the council that the city-approved bridle paths are “under attack while the city of Tempe relies on an unelected official, the city attorney, for unreliable advice.”
Schmehl noted that his group’s research revealed the city has a 12-inch water pipe that runs along the path, and “the size of the water-line easement does not meet the width requirements and may in fact be encroached upon by the offending wall.”
The very existence of Shady Lane Estates, Schmehl said, was conditioned upon the development honoring the easement.
“The evidence is clear that this encroaching wall on the bridle path is a knowing and willful violation of the legal stipulations on the plat map and the laws enumerated in the Tempe City Code,” Schmehl said.
In his closing remarks, Schmehl noted that the U.S. is a country of laws and challenged Mayor Corey Woods and City Council members to honor their oath of office to uphold the laws of Arizona and Tempe.
“The Tempe city staff is in need of your direction and leadership to have this wall torn down and the required bridle path restored,” Schmehl said.
Councilmember Jennifer Adams spoke briefly following Schmehl’s presentation.
“Obviously I have great concerns about this situation, about what Matt has brought up tonight, and I would like to hear from our city attorney … and see if we can get some clarification and if we need to revamp things, which it sounds like Matt made a great case for,” Adams said. “Then I think we need to relook at this situation moving forward and correct what’s happened if, in fact, we are out of code.”
Council members were not permitted to comment further due to Arizona’s open-meeting law because the item was not placed on the agenda two weeks prior to the meeting. Woods apologized to Adams that the item was not added in time.
“It’s something that we’re going to continue to discuss actively with staff,” Woods told Wrangler News on Jan. 15. “I know that as of (Jan. 14), our city attorney’s statement still was … that it is a private situation and the city doesn’t currently have any standing.
“At the same time, the fact that so many residents (participated in) the meeting, and they’ll continue to send in correspondence to the City Council, it’s still something that we’re actively looking into.”
Schmehl said he and his neighbors have consulted an attorney about possible litigation if the group is not successful in convincing the city to uphold the bridle-path easement. He’s convinced the path is not a private easement but a public one that the city should recognize if it doesn’t want to set a precedent for picking and choosing which laws to enforce.
“I think out of this,” Schmehl said, “ that’s one of the choices they have to make: What’s the precedent you set?”