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For the week of November 22 through 28, 2000

Residents blast Golden Eagle berms

Change plans or rework berms?

Express Staff Writer

The fate of 700 feet of oversized berms along Highway 75 at Greenhorn Gulch was still uncertain Monday afternoon, following three and a half hours of public deliberation in a packed old Blaine County Courthouse.

Jed Gray, representing developer Harry Rinker, says his crews made berms higher than allowed to create "visual interest." The berms are up to nine feet taller than the developer said they would be in 1998. Express photo by Willy Cook

The berms have been the target of public criticism since October, mostly because of their height—currently up to nine feet more than allowed, county engineer Jim Koonce said.

The issue has held up final subdivision approval for Gold Eagle Ranch II subdivision, five miles south of Ketchum. That approval will allow developer Harry Rinker to begin selling lots, priced at between $450,000 and $1.5 million.

Because the berms are so high, valley residents say they block mountain views and may create a safety hazard by shading the roadway and preventing ice from melting.

Rinker said his intent is to "fully bring [the berms] into compliance" with county requirements.

One of the ways Rinker proposed doing that is by asking the county to modify drawings his development team submitted for the berms, approved by the planning and zoning commission in 1998.

So, the discussion Monday between county officials and the developer considered both changing the berms to comply with the plans and changing the plans to comply with the berms.

What’s at stake for valley residents, if the county revises the plans, is more than just view and safety issues. Some said the public’s faith in the county planning process is also in jeopardy if the county allows Rinker to ignore restrictions it made in 1998.

Some of the 60 or so residents who weighed in on the side of reducing the berms were concerned the county would give Rinker special treatment because he is a big developer.

"If you’re going to ask anybody to comply [with county rules], you need to ask this developer to comply, too," said Hailey resident Jan Edelstein.

Monday’s meeting was the second since Oct. 16 in which Rinker asked the county to rubber stamp his monster mounds.

But the board of commissioners refused to do that in October, and afterwards Rinker’s excavation crews began removing dirt from the earthworks, 70 percent of which were over the three- to eight-foot height limit, Koonce said.

In October, Koonce said, some of the berms were as much as twice as high as approved, and they extended into the publicly owned highway right-of-way.

Jed Gray, representing Rinker, said in October the developer was aware the berms were not built as approved. Gray attributed the discrepancies to "field changes," which he said, "we all make."

Koonce said Monday the revised earthwork "for the most part, is pretty much approximate to the [1998] design." But, he said, it leaves a 700-foot section near the intersection of East Fork Road that is from 2 to 9 feet higher than approved.

Berms along Greenhorn Road are also above a five-foot limit approved by Planning and Zoning in 1998.

Speaking for the developer, Gray said those berms have been made higher than five feet to create "visual interest." Also, he said, they are higher because his crews have raised the elevation of the ground surface in general in that area. How high it has been raised was not clear, though Koonce said the new elevations of the overall project are from 10 feet lower to 16 feet higher than the developer originally said they would be.

With modern Global Positioning System surveying equipment, he later said, excavators can accurately measure within one inch of elevation.

Koonce also compared the height of the new berms to the berms created for the Golden Eagle Ranch I subdivision, a neighboring area Rinker developed several years ago. The new berms are from four to seven feet higher generally, and 17 feet higher in one place, Koonce said.

Late in the meeting, Commissioner Len Harlig asked facetiously, "Does size matter?" to which the humorless group failed to respond.

Gray said the developer was not misleading the planning and zoning commission in regard to the plans that were approved in 1998. Rather, he said, those plans weren’t followed because "we felt we had a little more latitude."

Dick Fosbury, an engineer working for Rinker, said excavators made changes to ensure a good "field fit." They were guided by "what looks good and what feels good," despite approved plans.

"There have never been any ill intentions by Mr. Rinker, or anybody working on the project, to try to circumvent what was approved," Gray said.

Before the next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 18 at 1:30 p.m., Rinker said he intends to fully comply with the 1998 plans. But his crews may not be able to do the actual work now because of winter weather. He suggested to the commissioners that he post a bond up to $2 million to ensure the work is done later. The commissioners did not respond.


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