Agritopia in the Upper Valley?

Agritopia in the Upper Valley_ – El Paso Inc. 3-30-14

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2014 6:00 pm
By Robert Gray El Paso Inc. staff writer

Joseph Nester, left, of Kaizen Construction Services and Scott Winton of Winton Group stand on the Upper Valley farmland where they want to develop an urban agriculture community. But first, they are asking for input from area residents at a design charrette.
Joseph Nester, left, of Kaizen Construction Services and Scott Winton of Winton Group stand on the Upper Valley farmland where they want to develop an urban agriculture community. But first, they are asking for input from area residents at a design charrette.

Where El Paso’s Westside suburbs end and the green and brown rectangles of Upper Valley farmland begin, two El Paso developers are moving forward with an unusual 120-acre development.

On Thursday, two green tractors crisscrossed the land at the southeast corner of Artcraft Road and Westside Drive, the neatly plowed soil dotted with white tufts of cotton left over from last season’s crop.

Partners Scott Winton of Winton Group and Joseph Nester of Kaizen Construction Services are contemplating building an urban agriculture community here with a tightknit mix of residences and retail.

The partnership, called UV120, has a pending contract to buy the land.

But the development has concerned some longtime Upper Valley residents who believe the creep of suburban neighborhoods threatens the area’s agricultural heritage and character.

To help allay concerns, the partners are seeking input from area residents before drawing up plans and have worked with the city to hold planning sessions. The second and final, “design charrette” is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, April 2, in the Canutillo High School cafeteria.

Winton said he expects to present the master plan 45 days after the charrette.

“If we are going to be developing land, we should be doing it in a way that is more conducive to the creation of community,” Winton said.

He and his partner said the development will respect the area’s agricultural heritage and they imagine a village with a simple, small-town feel that could center around a small cash crop, something like an organic garden or orchard.

“Hopefully, they are going to do something like that, because we only have this little bit of the valley left,” said Jim Maxfield, a founder of the Save the Valley neighborhood association. He has lived in the Upper Valley for 20 years.

David Bogas owns a small pecan farm in the Upper Valley where he has lived for 25 years. He’s also director of development for EPT Land Communities, the group building the Montecillo urban village along North Mesa Street.

“Being both a developer and having a small farm, it is a difficult line to walk,” Bogas said. “It tugs at the heartstrings to see land come out of farming. But the truth of the matter is when it comes to housing and commerce, a lot of times it is a necessity.”

At the first planning session for UV120, “the idea of preserving the agricultural heritage of the Upper Valley came out very clear,” Winton said. [Download report]

His partner, Nester, said the UV120 community may incorporate some elements of the Agritopia neighborhood in Arizona.

Agritopia is described as a “modern day village set within the urban fabric of the Phoenix metro area.” Although located in a suburb, life in the neighborhood revolves around a working farm.

“We know that there are a lot of better ways to develop land that we are not familiar with yet,” Nester said.

“So part of this process is also researching other communities that have been successful.”

More houses

In the meantime, Winton Group is set to break ground on a 62-acre neighborhood called Rio Valley half a mile north of UV120 at the corner of Westside Drive and Borderland Road, according to Winton.

It could include up to 350 residences, a “main street” lined with shops and an orchard with pomegranate trees.

Winton hopes Rio Valley will one day be the home of a pomegranate festival with sales of pomegranates helping fund the neighborhood association.

Further east, the first residents are moving into Desert Springs, a much larger suburban subdivision immediately north of Transmountain Road that is being developed by Desert View Homes.

Once a two-lane road cutting across untouched desert from the western slopes of the Franklin Mountains to Interstate 10, Transmountain is scheduled to open as a four-lane divided highway this summer with overpasses and sweeping direct connectors.

Drive that way today and you’ll see workers finishing up the first 25 homes of the 1,000-acre community.

“The growth rate is exceeding expectations,” said Pat Woods, director of land for Desert View Homes.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see several hundred homes in place in the next 18 months.”

The homes, priced for first-time homebuyers, are selling as fast as they can build them, Woods said, and he expects they will build 600 homes in Desert Springs over the next six years.

Stretched thin

So where are all these new homebuyers coming from?

They’re probably moving from older parts of the city, said University of Texas at El Paso economist Tom Fullerton.

“Usually what happens in these cases is that people move out to the fringes of cities because most of the houses inside the city are occupied and that unfortunately has a hollowing out effect on school systems,” Fullerton said.

The city’s chief planner, Mathew McElroy agreed.

“People are moving out of the city core and moving into new development on the edges of the city,” McElroy said.

One of the problems with that, Fullerton said, is that people buying new houses tend to have children, so school districts struggle to keep up as families with school age children push out to the edges of the city.

Enrollment at El Paso Independent School District, for example, has not grown in the past 25 years, yet the district has had to build new facilities totaling more than 3.7 million square feet, according to Superintendent Juan Cabrera.

“They are building new schools when they have excess capacity in other schools in the district,” said Susie Byrd, who was elected to the district’s board of trustees but hasn’t taken office because a board of managers now oversees the district.

Most of the new development in Northwest El Paso and in the Upper Valley is occurring in the Canutillo Independent School District. There are plans for 5,200 new homes in the district, CISD spokesperson Gustavo Reveles said.

The district’s student population has grown by more than half in the past 20 years, from 4,151 students in 1994 to 6,042 today, according to the district.

An elementary school under construction at the corner of Northern Pass and Paseo del Norte is scheduled to open in fall 2015. The district has one high school that is close to capacity and no funding to build another one, Reveles said.

To download the “UV120 Charrette Findings” report, click here.