#LocalBuzz: Q&A With Scottsdale City Councilman Tom Durham

By Scottsdale Pinetop

It’s been over five months since Scottsdale welcomed its newly elected city council members, who all earned their seats at the Nov. 3 General Election, including Councilman Tom Durham who gathered 58,194 votes in last year’s election.

Mr. Durham and his wife have lived in Scottsdale since 2015. He became interested in local politics in 2018 during the controversy surrounding the Desert Discovery Center. He served as Treasurer of the Protect Our Preserve PAC, the effort behind Proposition 420. Since moving to Scottsdale, he has served as a mock trial coach teaching trial skills, teamwork, and the rules of evidence to high school students.

We had a chance to catch up with newly-elected Councilman Durham to see how things have going being on the City Council and new issues facing Scottsdale residents.

  • What has been the best thing and the worst thing about serving on the City Council?

 The best thing is meeting with and talking to people about the future of Scottsdale.  We all love this city and want it to prosper and be the best place to live in the country.  We have different visions of how to bring that about and it is exciting to see how people are engaged in our future.  Balancing the various interests of different citizens is difficult but it helps to make this an exciting place to live.  I am also interested in what makes organizations “tick” so I enjoy learning about the various aspects of city government.

The worst thing is that there is a lot of reading to do.   I have read the General Plan front to back at least three times.  On important issues, such as parking and the Kimsey, I read the staff report several times.  In preparation for the parking issue, I read the 2015 Walker Parking study at least twice.  And we all have additional reading for the Committees we are on–I am on the Audit Committee and it presents some complex reading.  Since I was a lawyer, I am accustomed to reading and gathering information through that form, but there is still a lot to do.  

  • What are your top priorities on Council? Do you intend to introduce new items and if so what are they? 

Getting the General Plan passed comes first.  We have already passed the Non-Discrimination Ordinance.  I think all of us want to do something about short-term rentals, but state law makes that a tough nut to crack.  Other issues I am interested in including ethics and campaign finance reform.

  • Last month the council voted on its first major development project in Scottsdale – The Kimsey – which you voting in support of. Why did you ultimately decide to vote in favor of the project? How will this decision impact your vote on future development projects coming before the council

At the Council meeting, I tried to give a complete explanation for my vote on the Kimsey.  I will always try to do that.  Some people may not agree with my votes, but they will always know my reasons.  First, I thought the Kimsey, especially the hotel, would bring some extra life and foot traffic to a part of Old Town which needs it.  The Venue has been closed for quite some time and we need a draw for this part of town. Fifth Avenue and Scottsdale Road have a large amount of foot traffic, but it doesn’t penetrate into the areas south and west.  Second, the preservation of the Haver Building provided a significant bonus.  Third, unlike some recent developments, it didn’t present a “box-like” appearance and included required stepbacks and setbacks.  It didn’t impact any sightlines or view corridors.  The Council and staff negotiated a number of important protections for Scottsdale, such as a time limit for development, which will become standard in future development agreements.  Finally, the people who live, work, and invest in this area were strongly behind the project.  Height was obviously an issue, but the Council negotiated for reduced height and I believed the increased height was justified by saving the Haver Building.  Some people have claimed this sets a “precedent,” but it doesn’t in my mind.  It presented a particular use that meets a particular need in a particular place and provided important public benefits.  I will review all projects on a similar case-by-case basis.   

  • Public engagement and community input was a top priority for you throughout your campaign. How will you continue to communicate and connect with your constituents? Have you found this to be challenging while in office?  

No, not at all.  I will speak with anyone who wants to speak with me as I almost always learn from these conversations.  To me, this is the most important part of the job–making sure everyone in Scottsdale knows that their views are listened to and respected, even when the final decision doesn’t go their way.

  • Recently the City Council voted to take a second look at Scottsdale’s Old Town Character Area Plan – specifically when it comes to downtown heights. What do you hope will be the result of this new review? What do you think this will mean for Scottsdale as a whole? 

I have made it pretty clear that our system of providing “bonuses” for increased height is not working.  Several projects have been given bonuses for additional height, but in my mind, the Kimsey was the first project that actually presented an identifiable public benefit–saving the Haver Building.  And the Kimsey received a relatively modest height bonus.  So my hope is that the new Character Plan will require a high level of public benefit for increases in height and density.  We could also possibly provide some incentives for the revitalization of existing properties.

  • How do you believe we can best retain the essential character of Scottsdale and still address key issues around infrastructure, tourism, and growth?

I think most people are interested in protecting the character of Scottsdale through lower height and density, although some obviously disagree.  Many people want to live here–who can blame them?–so we need to look for strategic opportunities where a bit of additional height and density will preserve and enhance our character but still allow for additional growth.  I thought the Kimsey was such an opportunity.  In the revised parking code, we provided incentives for small residential developments in Old Town.  I would like to see more of that.  Tourism is our biggest industry and we must be careful to preserve the quality of life that draws people here, which includes open vistas, open spaces, and a thriving tourism sector.

  • What are you most looking forward to being on Scottsdale City Council?

My hope is I can play a role in making sure that Scottsdale continues to be one of the most beautiful, scenic, and livable places in the country.  I love spreading the word about Scottsdale and I hope it continues to be the place that we all love.