Wednesday, June 22, 2005

County extends subdivision moratorium for a year

Exemptions could be added as work is completed

Express Staff Writer

Agreeing there is an "imminent peril to the public health, safety and welfare," Blaine County leaders Tuesday afternoon extended an emergency moratorium on new subdivisions in unincorporated portions of the county for an additional year.

The moratorium, originally slated to expire July 10, 2005, will cease July 10, 2006.

However, the board adopted exemptions to the moratorium and did not rule out the possibility that more exemptions could be added as the county's planning and zoning regulations are revised in the weeks and months ahead.

"We really need to pay attention. Blaine County is the most special mountain community that we live in, and we have to do it right," said Commission Chair Sarah Michael. "If we don't, none of us are going to want to continue to live here. For me it's really worth taking a timeout to address the impacts of growth on our quality of life."

The unanimous vote by the Blaine County Commission followed a half-hour of public testimony from a half dozen people, including local residents, developers, the Blaine County Schools superintendent and a prominent local hydrologist.

Several of those who commented reiterated comments made at a public hearing a week ago that the moratorium is driving land values up at an accelerated rate.

Blaine County Schools Superintendent Jim Lewis was one of three people who focused on this point.

"We're pushing the level so high at this period of time that it's never going to come back for our workers in the valley," he said, echoing concerns expressed by others. "We're adding to the escalation by not having any available."

The sentiment is ironic because one of the planning-related issues the county is tackling during the moratorium is the lack of affordable, community housing in Blaine County.

According to developer Harry Rinker, the local need for deed-restricted housing comprises 10 to 15 percent of the demand for housing in general. The market, if allowed to run its course, can still accommodate doctors, lawyers and architects in need of homes, he said.

Rinker proposed additional examples of proposals he believes should be exempted from the moratorium. He said subdivisions providing affordable housing and meeting water and sewage requirements should be permitted to go forward.

But Commissioner Tom Bowman countered.

"I appreciate Mr. Rinker coming up with an alternate plan, but his plan doesn't address everything we plan to look at. We need to get through those issues now to be able to say 'yes' to a potential Perigrine Ranch," where Rinker has indicated he will develop a new neighborhood north of Hailey.

Also, Commissioner Dennis Wright argued the notion that the county's land values are escalating because of the moratorium.

"What we're into as far as this real estate—bubble is the best word I can come up with—it is a nationwide problem," he said. "Prices are still just constantly going up. What it amounts to is that real estate is the only game in town. Speculation is a big part of our problem right here in this valley. There's no way this county agency can solve the problem all by itself. If all of us put our shoulders to the problem, we can help."

Under the commission's plan to exempt certain properties, excepted projects would include applications for short plats in residential areas that create single lots. The exceptions would also include applications creating two lots in cluster subdivisions in the 20-acre-lot agricultural zone and short plats in which at least 50 percent of the lots are dedicated to a public facility, such as an ambulance or fire district or community housing. Also, a public agency must be a co-applicant.

The concept to except certain properties was partially initiated by Wes Wills during a public hearing on Tuesday, June 14. Wills, who lives in Ketchum and Smiley Creek, said he is attempting to subdivide a lot in order to donate land to the newly formed fire district.

"Sometimes it's the unintended results that get us in trouble, the devil being in the details," he said. "One of the bizarre unintended consequences is, I'm trying to donate a parcel of land to the Smiley Creek Fire District for a fire hall. But I can't donate the land until I subdivide a 40-acre parcel."

"If we can't donate the parcel, then the fire district can't get into the fund or grant cycle to pay for or fund the fire house," he said. "And we can't have equipment until we have a firehouse."

Commissioners also unanimously agreed to include the community housing planned unit development overlay area, south of McHanville, which the county enacted a year ago.

"There may be some expectation that if it's included in the moratorium, there's going to be some huge study of the impacts," said Commissioner Dennis Wright during the June 14 meeting. "I don't know that that's the case."

The community housing overlay area has been contentious among existing homeowners who live inside its borders, or nearby. They contend the overlay, if built out to its fullest capacity, could create another 3,000-person city.

Wright maintained that it can't hurt to sit back and watch as the first community housing planned unit development, Quail Creek, is built.

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