Working to keep Chandler, Mesa out, annexation ignited Gilbert’s growth

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When the town of Gilbert was considering paving the roads and adding sewers, which finally happened in 1957, it had one prominent and vocal critic: former Mayor Roy Fuller.

“[He was] very much against sewer lines and paved roads,” said Kayla Kolar, executive director of HD South, which houses the Gilbert Historical Museum. “He said, ‘If you do that, people will move here.’”

Kolar laughed.

“Little did he know,” she said.

Indeed, Fuller proved prophetic about people moving to Gilbert, though few in the town seem to complain about that situation. But the sewers and streets were not the catalyst to the explosive growth Gilbert later experienced.

Near the beginning of the 20th century, Arizona Eastern Railway looked to build a rail stop in a farm area on its way from Phoenix to the mining towns in the southeastern part of the state.

Landowner and town namesake Bobby Gilbert sold his land in the area to the railroad, and by 1905, the railway had built a depot in what is now the Heritage District of Gilbert. Local farmers shipped their alfalfa hay, cotton and watermelons, the area’s big crops, from that depot, Kolar said.

Business boomed so much, particularly with the need to ship hay to feed horses being used overseas in World War I, that the area became known as the “Hay Shipping Capital of the World.”

The town incorporated with the boundaries of the Heritage District in 1920. It stayed very much an agricultural town in the following decades—even after it paved the streets.

The real impetus for change came in 1975 when Dale Hallock, the mayor at that time, and the first town manager, Lynn Stuart, embarked on a “strip annexation” that expanded the town’s boundaries to Baseline Road along the north, Power Road to the east and Germann Road to the south.

Along the west, the boundary went south from Baseline and Arizona Avenue and started to zigzag south of Guadalupe Road to Gilbert and Williams Field roads, according to what area residents on county land would sign on to the annexation. From there it heads south along Gilbert Road to Germann. The annexation added 53 acres of county land, and it was meant to hold off encroachment from quickly growing neighbors Chandler and Mesa.

At the time, Kolar notes, U.S. 60 did not go as far as Gilbert, but plans were for it to keep moving east. Hallock was friends with Mesa Mayor Eldon Cooley, and Hallock agreed not to annex the land where the U.S. 60 would go so that the freeway could be in Mesa.

But the arrival of the U.S. 60 just to the north, along with the newly available land proved to be critical to Gilbert’s growth.

“Now people thought, ‘I can move all the way out to Gilbert; I could have my horse property; I can hop on the freeway because now there’s a freeway and go to work in Phoenix because there was no place to work in Gilbert,’” Kolar said. “So the strip annexation and the building the 60, those were the two reasons that Gilbert then started booming.”

The population grew from 1,971 in 1970 to 5,717 in 1980, to 29,188 in 1990, to 109,697 in 2000, and to 208,453 in 2010. Its estimated population today is 237,188.

Growth was so fast at one point that in 1996 the town declared a one-year moratorium on new zoning just to play catch-up.

Growth was supplemented with additional annexations to the south, including much of the land of unincorporated Higley in the mid-2000s and the opening of the Loop 2002-Santan Freeway in 2006.

Roy Fuller would not approve.

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Tom Blodgett
Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent 30 years in journalism in Arizona and is the editor of the Gilbert edition of Community Impact Newspaper. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he now serves as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.
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