Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Hotel operator withdraws from Warm Springs project

Developer says getting another hotel partner is unlikely

Express Staff Writer

The hotel operator involved in the Warm Springs Ranch redevelopment project has withdrawn its financial support and participation in the plan, throwing into doubt the future of the $200 million project.

Seattle-based Noble House Hotels withdrew its support following a Ketchum City Council meeting July 28 to consider the proposed project northwest of central Ketchum. During the public hearing, council members said they wanted to have independent studies done on recreation, economic impacts, avalanche potential and transportation issues.

Owners of Noble House Hotels cited what they saw as the City Council's requirement that a nine-hole golf course be part of the redevelopment plan, according to a news release issued by Sun Valley Ventures, the company that owns and is trying to redevelop Warms Springs Ranch.

Project manager Henry Dean met Tuesday, Aug. 9, with the Wood River Land Trust, the Environmental Resource Center and others involved in the project.

"In the real world, once a hotel partner pulls out ... the chance of getting another hotel in is nil," Dean said. "We're reeling from all of this."

He said there is no contingency plan in place, and the "Plan B" so often referred to—subdividing the land and selling it off—was not being considered.

"That's just developers talking ... to get things advanced," he said. "We have no interest in doing that."

Stephen Roth, majority owner of Sun Valley Ventures, has repurchased Noble House Hotel's 20 percent stake.

"When Noble House realized that not only was the City Council troubled with the fundamental concept of our project, and that it was going to take perhaps another six to nine months to come up with a redesigned plan acceptable to the council, they threw in the towel," Roth said in the news release. "Going through the eight-month planning and zoning process has already cost the owners millions in consulting fees and interest. The fact that millions more would have to be spent without any certainty of outcome was just too much for them."

Although the council's remarks made clear they wanted further study on the feasibility of a golf course, council members denied they had made any decisions.

"They made a determination that we hadn't made," said Councilman Baird Gourlay. "We wanted the group to study a nine-hole golf course. We hadn't made a determination on it."

Council President Randy Hall agreed.

"They might be right; they might not be right," he said. "Maybe they also picked up a bit on public sentiment. They lined up against it."

At the developers' request, Ketchum Mayor Ed Simon canceled a public hearing that had been scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 9. It was to be the third hearing on the matter in front of the City Council.

Three applications are under consideration: annexation of most of the property, a conditional-use permit for the development, and a preliminary plat.

The developers' plans have included a 60-room boutique hotel, condominiums, 30 affordable housing units, a new restaurant, a public hiking trail connecting Warm Springs Village to River Run, the restoration of Warm Springs Creek, a 37-acre public nature preserve deeded to the Wood River Land Trust, six public tennis courts and $7,500 per year to fund a youth golf program.

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

The Ketchum Planning & Zoning Commission in May recommended approval of the applications.

The plan to decommission the Warm Springs Golf Course in order to construct cabins for the hotel elicited strong opposition from many members of the community.

Dean has repeatedly said a golf course would be a "deal-breaker" because the hotel cabins would be the main source of funding for the project.

"We just need some time to assess the loss of our hotel operator/partner which provided the economic driver for the project," Dean said in the news release. "In addition, we need to initiate the studies requested by the council."

The Wood River Land Trust and the ERC are reevaluating their role in the land's preservation.

"We didn't get a fair hearing," said John Flattery, president of the land trust's board of directors. "We didn't get a chance to put forth our vision of what this could be."

City Council members defended the remarks they made during the July 28 meeting that pushed ERC and WRLT presentations off the agenda.

"I felt it was important to get some message to the applicant how the City Council was (feeling) so everybody knew what page we were on," Hall said. "This could have been dragged out for another six or nine months. I think the council did the applicant and the community a service. We gave the applicant a little snapshot of what we were feeling individually. (The applicant) could extrapolate what they wanted out of that."

Gourlay said his comments were sparked both by the city's comprehensive plan and by public sentiment.

"(The developers) were going down the wrong track," he said. "Number one, our comprehensive plan clearly states there has to be active recreation in mid-Warm Springs. That, combined with clear public comments ... overwhelmingly, they wanted active recreation. Public input and the comprehensive plan—that's what guides me. That's why I asked them to do a study."

Ketchum resident David Hurd, who has been a vocal opponent of losing the existing golf course, said he was happy that investors and the council were responding to the public.

"We wanted to slow it down and make it win-win for everybody," he said. "At this point it's another important situation where citizens in this valley stood up for what they believe in, and the council was listening to the people. Perhaps we won the first ball game, but the series is far from over."

Councilman Ron Parsons said the council would be open to rescheduling the developers' plan for future meetings.

"If and when he wants to come back .. and give us an idea where he wants to go, we're more than happy to meet with him at any time," he said.

"Projects this size take a lot of process," Hall added. "Projects are better off for the process because we can end up with a project that the Ketchum community can be proud of."

As of Tuesday afternoon, there had been no formal withdrawl of any of the project's three applications, nor any filing of modifications, according to the mayor.

If an application has slight changes, it might not have to go back through the planning and zoning process. If there are significant alterations to the proposal, the approval process would likely have to begin anew, he said.

"We're always going to evaluate the project based on the application pending," Simon said. "Until I see what they want to do, I can't tell you what's going to happen. It's really going to be determined by what the application is."

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