Friday, August 12, 2005

Warm Springs team regroups

'We've never had a contingency plan'

Express Staff Writer

Representatives from the Wood River Land Trust and Environmental Resource Center expressed disappointment Tuesday over the hotel partner's decision, as well frustration that the public hearing, during which they were scheduled to make presentations, was canceled. Pictured from left are Kate Giese, WRLT's stewardship coordinator; Craig Barry, ERC's executive director; John Flattery, WRLT's board of directors president; Kingsley Murphy, ERC's board of directors chairman; and Scott Boettger, WRLT's executive director. Photo by Willy Cook

Warm Springs Ranch developers and partners in the project were reassessing their plans this week following the withdrawal of hotel operator Noble House Hotels.

"We've never had a contingency plan," said project manager Henry Dean. "I so believed, particularly after the unanimous vote of the (Planning & Zoning Commission), I told investors I ... really believed we had it."

The Ketchum Planning & Zoning Commission in May unanimously recommended approval of owner Sun Valley Ventures' three associated applications to redevelop the property, including one proposal to annex most of the 77-acre site into Ketchum.

The City Council held two public hearings this summer on the matter.

As part of the estimated $200 million plan, Sun Valley Ventures offered to donate to the Wood River Land Trust 34.25 acres for a nature preserve. The preserve would be located primarily on lands that now comprise the Warm Springs Golf Course.

The Ketchum-based Environmental Resource Center was planning to administer a proposed Warm Springs Ranch Nature Center as part of the plan.

In a meeting Tuesday, Aug. 9, with other project representatives, Dean described the chance of getting another hotel partner as "nil."

"When we were told there had to be an executive nine-hole golf course and restructuring of the hotel, they said they were out," Dean said.

The proposed project includes a boutique hotel, condominiums, a new restaurant and numerous public amenities, including the preserve and six tennis courts.

Sun Valley Ventures formally announced Tuesday that Noble House had pulled out of the project and sold its 20 percent share to majority partner Stephen Roth.

"Based exactly on what was said and written into the record, the hotel withdrew," Dean said.

A memo to Council President Randy Hall from contract planner Lisa Horowitz dated July 25 reviews possible studies suggested by Hall and Councilman Baird Gourlay, including analyses of economic impacts of the hotel, avalanches, transportation and recreation.

"The city needs to contract with a golf-planning consultant to evaluate the operations and economics of the existing golf course," the memo reads. "The consultant shall evaluate a conceptual design of an executive par-3 golf course with the proposed project."

Gourlay set off a round of comments during the July 28 public hearing that led to cancellation of a hearing scheduled for Aug. 9.

City Council members said they were seeking only a peer review, or independent study, of the feasibility of a golf course and hadn't made up their minds whether that would be a deal-breaker.

"I didn't hear it that way," Dean said. "I disagree. I was informed that was pretty much the consensus of the council. There were conditions that were going to be required that would not allow us to go forward with the plan."

Dean repeatedly has said the hotel and cabin concept was the economic driver of the project and the plan could not proceed without it. He also said previously that council members should have heard the full application before commenting on the proposal.

Councilwoman Terry Tracy said developers should have continued, regardless of the council's comments.

"I don't think they realized if they were in it for the long haul, the long haul is a matter of months, not a matter of weeks or days," she said. "I had a thousand questions and I thought we'd go through it all. I was willing to listen to the whole nine yards. Unfortunately, we've only got one yard."

The city said it canceled the meeting at the developers' request.

Dean said he wanted to continue with presentations, but the city told him they were at an impasse.

"They cancelled the hearing," he said Thursday. "I had nothing to proceed with. My entire plan had been gutted.

The Wood River Land Trust and Environmental Resource Center, which entered into contracts with Sun Valley Ventures, also expressed frustration at the turn of events.

"The ERC is very disappointed," said Craig Barry, executive director. "Our initial commitment and interest was with the nature center and preserve. Our vision fit in well with this community and would leave a lasting legacy. It's very unfortunate the reception wasn't different. The ERC and Land Trust were just getting fired up to unveil this vision to their members."

The Land Trust and ERC were scheduled to make presentations to the City Council July 28. Lengthy public comment, followed by the impromptu discussion by the City Council, pre-empted their pitches.

"The Land Trust, the ERC, the Planning and Zoning Commission have all put a lot of time into this," said Kingsley Murphy, chairman of ERC's board of directors. "I think it's a little disrespectful of the City Council not to look at the work of those people and the effort of the P&Z. If we had had the opportunity, they would have understood how positive this would have been."

Tracy said the two group's issues should be worked out with the property owners and developers.

"Their deal is with Sun Valley Ventures," she said. "They made an agreement with them. They need to work with them. We may have jump started things at the last meeting, but Sun Valley Ventures needed to understand there were a lot of issues. Was this project going to benefit the community as a whole?"

Scott Boettger, executive director of the Land Trust, looked for positives in the situation.

"It really did feel good to see people speak with emotion and heart about the place they love," he said. "I'm certainly not against people up there cheering for the golf course. That's what the Land Trust is all about: protecting places people love."

The Land Trust, ERC and representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Big Wood Backcountry Trails went ahead Wednesday, Aug. 10, with a walk-through of a proposed Bald Mountain connector trail.

A 2.5-mile section could be added to existing trails to link the River Run base area and Warm Springs Village.

"We would still provide the property for that," Dean said Tuesday. "Maybe that would be our legacy. Nobody can tell us we can or can't do that. So we will do that."

Sun Valley Ventures' applications are still before the City Council, and Dean said he has no plans to withdraw them.

"I know if (Roth) were here, he would say he has no plans for the development of that golf course," Dean said. But, "if somebody came forward with a plan that made sense ... he would consider that in a moment. He lives here. He's fought hard for this project. The door is absolutely not shut."

In the meantime, developers are regrouping.

"I'll call my team together ... and just think it through," Dean said. "We have to decide what to do and where to go. And that's going to take a long time."

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