Friday, July 8, 2005

Warm Springs developers outline vision

Site visit by council precedes series of public hearing

Express Staff Writer

Even though rounds of golf and platters of fish may have brought Ketchum City Council members to Warm Springs Ranch in the past, council members embarked on a site visit this week to study the property from a different perspective.

Developers and project representatives led the council, mayor and department heads on a tour Wednesday, July 6, to present details of the project's proposed development that is currently before the council.

"There are obviously a lot of things to work through," said Councilman Baird Gourlay. "What (the Environmental Resource Center and the Wood River Land Trust) want to do are incredible benefits. I just have to think through other minutiae."

Sun Valley Ventures is proposing a new hotel, condominiums, a new Warm Springs Restaurant, a parking structure, a 37-acre public park managed by the Wood River Land Trust, a public hiking trail connecting Warm Springs to River Run, and the restoration of Warm Springs Creek, among other aspects. The Environmental Resource Center announced plans to build a nature center on the preserve.

Nearly 66 acres of the 77-acre project would have to be annexed into Ketchum.

Issues of streets, fire mitigation and response, transportation, ingress and egress are on the minds of decision-makers while they mull the development.

The Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission by a 4-0 vote recommended the project's three applications: annexation, a conditional-use permit for the development, and the large block preliminary plat.

Although approval rests in the hands of the City Council, Gourlay said that the public still has ample opportunity to affect how the project takes shape.

"They have a tremendous amount of influence," he said. "There will probably be a public hearing for every issue. We have to decide whether annexation will be an asset to the community. There's obviously some negotiation we can go through with them (wanting) annexation."

During the afternoon walk, officials took in the lay of the land, determining how public safety, access and benefits would play out.

"I've seen the plans, but it kind of loses scale," said Greg Schwab, chief of fire and emergency medical services, "and we have such unique topography here."

He said riparian zones could be a concern, but developers' plans to irrigate around homes, install inside sprinklers and use fire-resistive exteriors will help mitigate fire risk.

Schwab also pondered fire truck and ambulance access.

"Egress is always an issue for us," he said. "The most remote things are the cabins but they're small in Ketchum terms. The high-density (structures) have adequate access."

Scientist Kaz Thea, who serves as a consultant to Sun Valley Ventures, explained how the stream will be restored to its original state.

"We'll pull back the banks and soften the angle," she said. "What it lacks is diverse habitat for fish. There's very little diversity in the stream to create habitat. We're going to recreate all that."

The Wood River Land Trust and the Environmental Resource Center have partnered with owners to create a nature preserve and to host educational opportunities, respectively.

"The nature center combines active use with education in a really unique way, and will inspire people to connect with our natural world," said Craig Barry, executive director of ERC.

"This won't be ... just another piece of backyard," said Scott Boettger, executive director of the Wood River Land Trust.

Boettger credited the owners with supporting the idea of natural, open space.

"This is a property we identified long ago as important to protect," he said. "It wasn't until the (current) owner, Sun Valley Ventures, that there was any real talk of preservation."

Sun Valley Ventures partner Samuel Long said he and the other investors prefer to include land restoration in the project rather than subdividing and building on every bit.

"The partnership wants an outcome that is absolutely the best for the site," Long said Thursday. "That doesn't mean squeezing the most amount of money out of it. That means a successful development that achieves the restoration of the land, including what the land gave us ... the edge of a mountain, a stream and various things between. Restoration of that is an important step in the development process. The Wood River Land Trust is a natural entity to manage that part of the development."

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