Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Are we going to pave over paradise?

Two groups aim to limit negative impacts of growth

Express Staff Writer

Christopher Simms, executive director of Citizens for Smart Growth, works in his Hailey office last week. Simms said local government agencies need to cooperate more effectively to guide the fast-paced growth in the Wood River Valley. Photo by David N. Seelig

The recent surge of new development in the Wood River Valley is accommodating a surge of another sort. In Blaine County, the population increased 26 percent in the decade from 1992 to 2002, from approximately 15,000 to just over 20,000.

To many residents, fast-paced growth means job creation, economic prosperity and an assortment of social benefits.

Yet, growth does not come without its impacts. It not only means more people, but more roads, more cars and more pollution, as well as less open space, less tranquility and less of an area for wildlife to call home.

Two Wood River Valley organizations, Citizens for Smart Growth and the Wood River Land Trust, are working to ensure that growth in the valley does not leave residents wondering years from now if they have paved over paradise.

“Growth is inevitable,” said Christopher Simms, executive director of Hailey-based Citizens for Smart Growth. “We do not work to prevent that inevitable growth. We work to manage it.”

The main goals of managing growth, Simms said, are to promote efficient uses of land and natural resources, eliminate sprawl and promote the stability of communities and neighborhoods.

One proven doctrine of growth management, he said, is to promote density in established cities while preserving outlying lands for agriculture and open space.

“The result is clean air, water and habitat for wildlife,” Simms said. “And that’s why so many people want to move here: clean air, clean water and wildlife.”

Although Simms said he is concerned that local governments are not collaborating effectively to plan for regional growth and development, he does not believe the current pace of growth in the Wood River Valley will inevitably destroy the quality of life.

However, time is of the essence, he said.

“I think we can be saved,” Simms said. “But, now we’re getting development sprawling all over the county. The next couple of years could determine how this place looks in 100 years.”

Simms noted that one estimate of Blaine County’s population at buildout—when all of the zoned lands have been developed—ranges around 80,000.

For the county to accommodate that population without significantly reducing the quality of life, government agencies must undertake new efforts to promote sustainable growth, he said.

Development should be focused to the cities, he said, on lots small enough to limit sprawl. Affordable housing and convenient public transit should be treated as genuine priorities. The availability of long-term water supplies should be ensured.

“It’s alarming that we move forward at this pace of growth without doing our homework,” Simms said.

Simms said one of his organization’s main goals is to establish a regional planning authority that would “employ a holistic approach to planning.”

The Hailey-based Wood River Land Trust is also focusing efforts on preserving open space and guiding development in the valley.

The Land Trust has to date protected more than 3,900 acres of land in and around the Wood River Valley, primarily through conservation easements—which promote conservation through permanently limiting the uses of a property—and the establishment of nature preserves.

Dan Gilmore, community outreach director, said he believes strongly that maintaining a vibrant economy and high standard of living in the Wood River Valley is reliant upon the preservation of the area’s open spaces, natural beauty and scenic qualities.

“While building is very important, we need to take a long-term view so people don’t destroy the things that make this place attractive and unique,” Gilmore said.

The Land Trust—like CSG—promotes the concept of using so-called “transfers of development rights” to shift new development away from sensitive rural areas to cities and other sectors with an established infrastructure.

TDRs ultimately restrict development in designated “sending areas” in exchange for the right to increase density in chosen “receiving areas.”

Gilmore said growth in the valley must be managed to protect the quality of life for future generations.

“You may be able to build a hundred houses in a year, but what’s this place going to look like when our grandchildren are here?”

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