County Islands: Why Arizona has so Many and why Tempe Residents Want to get rid of Theirs

Article originally posted on AZ Central on March 16, 2021

A new apartment complex, Banyan North Tempe, is planned near Miller and Curry roads north of Loop 202.

Tempe residents and city officials hope a recently approved apartment complex north of Loop 202 could jumpstart redevelopment on a county island dotted by a strip club, a pawn shop and scrap-metal shops.

At the least, it takes a 17-acre chunk out of the 70-acre county island, as the city annexed the apartment land.

The Phoenix area has numerous county islands, a term that’s often unfamiliar to transplants from older, more established parts of the U.S.

A county island is a pocket of unincorporated land that is fully surrounded by an incorporated city or town. They bubble up as cities grow, eating up what was once more rural land, and as some property owners seek city annexation, while others do not.

The unincorporated areas remain part of Maricopa County, following that jurisdiction’s land-use and zoning requirements, which can be less stringent, rather than the cities.

County islands exist across the Valley, from Mesa to Glendale.

Tempe has four county islands within its borders, including the roughly 70 acres nestled between Curry Road to the north, Gilbert Drive to the south, Scottsdale Road to the west and Miller Road to the east. The land surrounding it was annexed by Tempe decades ago.

Plans to incorporate the remaining county land never materialized — until now.

The City Council in February agreed to annex about 17 acres at the east end of the county island that developers plan to transform into Banyan North Tempe, a market-rate apartment complex, with a public dog park across the street.

‘A new day’

Nearby residents, who have long wanted the area to become part of the city, cheer the move as a first step to annexing and redeveloping the entire area.

They said annexation could help address blight, provide needed public safety resources and attract more development.

“This is the beginning of a new day,” said Darlene Justus, a 55-year resident of north Tempe and neighborhood activist. “Having this first development and beginning the annexation process provides hope for the community.”

Graffiti, dumping among issues in the island

The county island near north Tempe has long drawn the ire of residents in surrounding neighborhoods, who see the industrial area as a source of blight.

Justus said graffiti and dumping have plagued the area. Many of the properties are dilapidated and outdated infrastructure has led to heavy flooding after rain, she said.

Residents say graffiti and dumping have been an issue in the county island in north Tempe.

With an uptick in people experiencing homelessness, some camp under Loop 202 and in more secluded areas of the county island.

Justus has rallied residents to do regular cleanups and graffiti removal.

More recently she and other residents with the North Tempe Neighborhood Association have called on Maricopa County for assistance and helped organize several meetings between county and city officials and residents to discuss how best to deal with their concerns.

Annexation efforts to date

Tempe first looked at annexing the county island around 1997, former Mayor Hugh Hallman said.

But work to bring the land into the city never materialized as the city switched its focus to the area southeast of there that would eventually become Tempe Marketplace, he said.

As the city worked to redevelop the Tempe Marketplace land, some of the businesses there relocated to the county island, he said.

The county island in north Tempe is dotted by scrap-metal shops, a strip club and a pawn shop.

Today there are car repair shops, a storage business, tow yard and paint shops.

Councilmember Jennifer Adams led a working group that again began exploring what it would take to incorporate the land almost two years ago.

Adams, who lives in south Tempe, said she heard from many residents in the area who wanted something done while she was on the campaign trail in 2017.

Staff looked at what businesses were there and land values, studied the infrastructure issues and discussed how the city would provide public safety.

Ultimately, they decided that rather than the city pursuing annexation on its own and trying to annex the entire 70-plus acres, it would be easier to let the market drive the process, Donna Kennedy, Tempe’s economic development director, said.

“It would take 51% of the property owners in the county island to annex the whole thing. That would require a lot of work, staff going door to door, so we thought we’d just see how the market dictates it,” she said.

Then the Banyan land went up for sale.

New housing project, park

Banyan North Tempe is a four- and five-story apartment complex with 651 units ranging in size from studios to four bedrooms.

Five of the units will be live-work units with potential for commercial space on the ground floor.

The complex will feature a pool, outdoor gathering space with ramadas and other amenities. A public dog park is planned south of the complex.

Developers are expected to update area infrastructure, including water and sewer lines, underground the power lines and realign Gilbert Road at no cost to the city as part of the project, according to project documents.

Sidewalks and bike paths connecting the complex to Rio Salado Park are also planned.

Work is expected to start as early as this month, said attorney Charles Huellmantel, who represents the developer.

City leaders and residents hope Banyan moving forward makes it easier to annex the remaining county island or entices property owners to clean up their sites or even redevelop.

“This is the beginning of something big,” Kennedy said. “For so long people said it couldn’t be done … now we have this Banyan piece.”

Kennedy said developers have expressed interest in buying and assembling other parcels, but no formal plans have been submitted.

It likely will take some work.

Some of the parcels are irregular-shaped, so several properties would need to be pieced together to make it easier to redevelop, she said. Property owners would have to get on board and annexation itself is a lengthy process.

The city began working on assembling and cleaning up the Tempe Marketplace land in 1995 but that project wasn’t completed until 12 years later, Hallman said.

The same can be expected this time around, especially because it’s being tackled in pieces, he said.

But the city and residents are hopeful.

The additional density could support new neighborhood businesses and services like a grocery store — something the neighborhoods have long pushed for — a pharmacy, hardware store and maybe even some restaurants. Justus said she’d like to see more residential projects and maybe some type of permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness.

County islands in metro Phoenix

There are more than 300 county islands across the Valley, according to data from the Maricopa Association of Governments.

Combined, the county islands make up nearly 36,900 acres of land.

There are more than 300 county islands in Maricopa County.

Gilbert has the most county islands within its borders — 65 — followed by Buckeye, Phoenix and Chandler. However, the county islands in Buckeye and Phoenix are significantly larger, totaling 8,772 and 10,357 acres, respectively.

The number of county islands constantly changes as cities continually annex more unincorporated land, county planning officials said.

County islands more frequently formed in southern and western states as cities and towns expanded into rural areas rather than growing block by block like in more compact cities on the East Coast, said Matt Holm, the county’s planning supervisor.

Not all property owners in a county island favor annexation and choose to remain unincorporated. Sometimes it’s because of agricultural or industrial business interests that could be hindered if they were to be absorbed by a city.

Zoning and development standards are different on county islands. County zoning rules allow for lower density in some areas and affords property owners animal and livestock privileges that they may not get if they were in the city.

In the north Tempe county island, a representative for some of the businesses adjacent to the Banyan project said they supported new development, but they were concerned about being pushed out. They located their businesses in the county island to be further away from residential areas and not be a nuisance. They questioned what would happen when residents started moving in and complaining about the long hours and noise, according to a letter sent to the developer.

In other cases, property owners have pushed to be incorporated to benefit from city services.

Residents and businesses in county islands don’t receive municipal services like water or trash pickup. They also must contract for fire protection and emergency medical services, which the county government doesn’t provide. Some county islands form fire districts to provides fire services to the area.

Lack of services can often push residents in a county island to petition a surrounding city to annex the land. Tally Ho Farms, a subdivision in south Tempe was annexed by the city in the early 1990s after a fire destroyed a home in the neighborhood.