Wednesday, June 1, 2005

County's growth threatens quality of life

Commission chair discusses massive planning effort, moratorium

Express Staff Writer

First in a series of three

In the six months since Blaine County declared an emergency moratorium on new subdivisions, it has spent $25,000 for several consultants and held dozens of meetings on how to plan for future growth.

More expenses and more consultants are sure to come as part of an expansive effort to revise county planning.

It's more planning in a short amount of time than the county has done in roughly a decade, but the effort so far has only scratched the surface. On June 14, the Blaine County Commission will take a vote on whether to extend its six-month moratorium by an additional 12 months.

"It's not like we don't have a lot of other things on our plate, but, to me, this is our number one priority," said Blaine County Commission Chair Sarah Michael. "That's because it's all about preserving our quality of life and allowing growth."

It's a tall order, perhaps, but it's an utterance repeated in city halls and county courthouses throughout the resort kingdoms of the Rocky Mountain West. If there is a tie binding the West's resort areas together, it's growth and the myriad of issues associated with growth.

"Look at Colorado, Wyoming, Utah," Michael said. "It's not a phenomenon unique to Blaine County, but Blaine County is relatively unspoiled. These kinds of demands and pressures are happening elsewhere. People want to move to smaller communities. They want the quality of life here.

"The big picture is that what is happening here is happening all over the West."

But Blaine County has slipped behind the curve compared with some other Western resort counties, Michael said.

"They have much cleaner requirements related to wildlife, just moving earth, size of houses, lighting and access," she said. "These are discreet problems that have been addressed by other areas that we're now seeing the results of our not having an ordinance."

Citing a glut of potential new developments in unincorporated portions of the county, the Blaine County Commission on Monday, Jan. 10, unanimously enacted the 182-day emergency moratorium on development applications that included five or more lots. The commission this spring expanded the moratorium to include all subdivision applications.

And, on June 14, it may extend it further.

From the perspective of smart-growth advocates, the moratorium makes sense.

"It's stopping people for a minute so they can think," said Allison Kennedy, planning coordinator for the Wood River Land Trust, based in Hailey.

Kennedy said the timeout will enable people to look at issues on a regional basis, "and that's where it's ultimately going."

Kennedy and land trust Executive Director Scott Boettger have attended some of the meetings related to Blaine County's moratorium and planning efforts. "It's definitely a good start," she said.

Local residents and planners need to look at planning on a watershed scale, rather than focus on arbitrary political boundaries, she said, adding that the effects of Blaine County's moratorium have already become evident in other counties within the Big and Little Wood river watersheds.

In fact, Blaine County's southern neighbor, Lincoln County, enacted a 100-day emergency moratorium on new subdivisions on Monday, May 23. Arguably, the Wood River Valley's tourism and resort-based economic engine is helping to drive growth in Lincoln County as well.

Blaine County Citizens for Smart Growth, too, said developing a regional vision is an important step that should be taken in the coming year.

"In the first six months of this moratorium, we have really only been able to identify planning issues rather than to flush out more of a visioning voice, which is what I hope to see in the next year of the moratorium," said Christopher Simms, executive director of Citizens for Smart Growth.

During the last six months, Blaine County has commissioned studies on affordable housing, clean water, agricultural zoning, cost-of-services issues and a comprehensive plan analysis. Although some of the studies propose policy actions, Michael said they are meant to serve as a starting point.

"I think we are prioritizing what can be done," she said. "We are clear about affordable housing, water protection, regional planning and regional transportation."

The next step will be to seek feedback from local citizens. In September, after a few more months of fact finding, the county should be ready to hold meetings, present several alternative growth and planning scenarios and ask for input.

"Is it time to develop a new town?" Michael asked. "Or should we limit the number of building permits we issue?" Those are the kinds of questions the planners will probably ask. "We need to take the information to the people. The most meaningful planning will be done with our citizens and what they see for the future."

Simms said he is supportive of the general planning goals outlined by county planners and consultants so far, but he stressed that any one issue should not outstrip the importance of overall sound planning principles.

The findings for the emergency ordinance state that Blaine County experienced 40 percent population growth from 1990 to 2000 and continues to grow at a rate of 3.5 percent annually.

In the past four years, development proposals in the county have ranged between four and 25 lots. In 2005, Blaine County was expected to receive applications for developments of 300 lots or more.

"We're talking about the creation of whole new cities," Michael said.

Population growth has resulted in traffic congestion and impacts to wildlife, open space and agriculture. The addition of more than 100 new septic systems north of Hailey could affect the city's water supply.

Commissioner Tom Bowman agreed that the pending growth constitutes an urgent situation.

"The county needs time to review its comprehensive plan, subdivision and zoning ordinances to determine whether existing ordinances adequately address the impacts of such proposals," Bowman said. "That the board voted unanimously for this moratorium shows that we are taking seriously our voters' concerns regarding quality of life issues in our county."

Michael said Blaine County has a good foundation: a comprehensive plan that lays the groundwork for proactive ordinances. Now it is time to build the ordinances that will actually make the difference.

"The issues have been building," she said. "I've been concerned about planning and growth in the county for quite some time—particularly with affordable housing."

One of the primary reasons Michael supported Bowman during his candidacy for the county commission was because he promised to be proactive on planning.

"There are definitely a lot of things," Michael said as she ticked through the list of issues on the commission's to-do list. "Our comp plan and our ordinances have done a great job. Look at the quality of life we have, but now it's time to take it to the next level."

Coming next: A look at growth in Camas County.

The laundry list

During the moratorium period, the Blaine County Commission has examined a lengthy list of issues, including:

· Amending the Blaine County subdivision ordinance to require community housing from new developments.

· Amending the subdivision ordinance to require a plan for public transportation from new developments.

· Amending the county's A-20 zoning district to allow only for cluster development.

· Revising zoning districts, in particular A-10, which includes many county hillsides.

· Analyzing the cost of providing services for new developments and developing mechanisms to pay for those impacts.

· Completing area of city impact agreements between the county and its inherent cities.

· Reviewing the community housing planned unit development ordinance to consider changing permitted densities and either expanding or reducing the size of the overlay district.

· Examining the impact of "what may be regarded as a new city between Bellevue and Gannet."

· Examining the viability of creating water and sewer districts within the county.

· Rewriting sections of the comprehensive plan, zoning ordinance and subdivision ordinance.

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