Friday, August 26, 2005

TNC rethinks public tours of Papa's house

Organization says it will restore historic Ketchum residence

Express Staff Writer

The door appears to have been closed on the question of public access to late author Ernest Hemingway's house in Ketchum.

The Nature Conservancy of Idaho, which owns the 13-acre Hemingway property northwest of central Ketchum, announced this week in a press release a new plan for the site.

Restoration of the house and installation of a live-in caretaker are part of the plan. Scheduled public tours are not.

"A continuing controversy about future use of the Hemingway House had the potential to take resources away from our conservation projects around the state," Lou Lunte, acting TNC Idaho director, said in the news release. "The Idaho Chapter's staff and board decided that its efforts should emphasize the house and preserve's cultural and natural features. We believe we can work with the community and the preserve neighbors in a way that protects the preserve and allows us to continue to focus on our mission of protecting Idaho's special natural areas. That is what The Nature Conservancy does best, on a local, state, national and international scale."

TNC Idaho also is in discussions with the Ketchum-Sun Valley Historical Society regarding completion of a detailed archival inventory of the house's contents.

The announcement by TNC came after a discussion Tuesday, Aug. 23, among Hemingway House neighbors, their attorney, Gary Slette, and Lunte.

"The conservancy requested that our groups sit down and meet about three months ago," Slette said Wednesday from his Twin Falls office. "It took this long to assemble everyone."

Neighbors of the Hemingway House retained Slette to help them in their fight to keep TNC from increasing public access to the house.

Slette and his clients held that zoning laws should protect their Limited Residential-zoned neighborhood from frequent public tours.

"The neighbors went into (the meeting) with an open mind," Slette said. "From my clients' perspective (the outcome) was a palpable relief. It's been difficult being at odds with neighbors. They haven't enjoyed it but they felt strongly about property rights."

Slette added that the parties parted amicably.

"I think the discussions are basically completed, in light of statements made by The Nature Conservancy (Tuesday)," he said. "I understand the emotional issues at stake. I just don't think it's possible to ignore the comprehensive plan aspect of this (situation).

"I think a new era is afoot for the way things go up there," he added.

Hemingway's fourth wife, Mary, deeded the property to TNC in 1986. The conservancy recently determined that managing the historic property was too expensive and was outside their mission of protecting wild lands. They proposed transferring ownership of the building to the Idaho Hemingway House Foundation, while keeping the surrounding land as a nature preserve.

As the primary part of its mission, the foundation intended to renovate the house and conduct limited public tours and workshops there. The latest developments throw into question the future of the foundation.

"It takes away one of the main elements of our mission," said Jim Jaquet, a member of the IHHF board of directors. "The Nature Conservancy owns the house and are stewards of the house. We are active in the house only as much as The Nature Conservancy allows us to do so. They call the shots."

Jaquet said the foundation was happy about some aspects of the plan, but disappointed in others.

"We're disappointed in the decision of the conservancy to step back from our shared goal of providing reasonable public access to the Hemingway House," he said. "But we understand that decision and we respect that decision.

"We're pleased they'll have a caretaker and they're doing a restoration of the house," he added. "We certainly understand the need to be a good neighbor and deal with the immediate neighbors, but we hope somewhere in the future there can be public access."

Fund raising for the restoration effort will be adversely impacted by terminating a plan for public access, he said.

"We always felt in order to do the type of job and bring it back to the way it was in the early 1960s when the Hemingways lived there, it would cost a half million dollars," Jaquet said. "We don't think that kind of money can be raised if there's no public access."

He said the foundation's members in the coming weeks will discuss their next course of action.

"We're going to meet amongst ourselves and see where we go from here," Jaquet said. "Maybe there's some other role (our) foundation can play apart from the house. At this point, I don't know what that could be."

One other issue remains in question, however.

The Nature Conservancy had requested the city of Ketchum allow limited public tours, educational programs and workshops at the historic house.

The city then decided to pursue a zoning code amendment to allow public access to historic sites in all zoning districts. That future of that amendment, which the city said could apply to numerous historic properties, is now in doubt.

"As much as I'd like to move forward with it since I've got a unanimous recommendation from the (Historic Preservation Commission) and the Planning and Zoning Commission," said Ketchum Planning Director Harold Moniz, "I don't see this amendment happening unless somebody else pursues it or asks me to put it on the agenda ... It's pretty much just sitting there waiting."

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