Friday, December 2, 2005

County brings city leaders into the loop

Dialogue on future growth sought, as moratorium end looms closer

Express Staff Writer

A lingering question Wednesday evening followed an unprecedented Blaine County-hosted meeting of some 50 elected officials at the Community Campus in Hailey.

Can current planning efforts of the county's five municipalities already accommodate anticipated growth for the next 20 years?

Discovering where and how the public feels the county should grow in the next two decades has been the focus of County Commissioners, planners and consultants since October. The outreach campaign—titled, "Blaine County 2025: How and Where Will we Grow?"—has embraced growth predictions for a 44 percent population increase that would bring in some 10,000 new residents. That, in turn, would push the county's total population over 30,000 people. So, the leading question in the discussion for how to manage growth is about how to best accommodate what is predicted.

Arguably, market forces will ultimately determine how quickly and to what numbers the county actually grows and whether Blaine County becomes largely a second-home community. But, many at the meeting praised county officials for being proactive and working in recent months to tackle growth issues with the goal of preserving a more community-oriented set of values.

County consultant Ben Herman, of Colorado-based Clarion Associates, who facilitated the round table discussion geared toward inviting city input into what is a county planning process that will result in new or revamped county policy, stressed the importance of cooperation between the incorporated and unincorporated parts of the county.

He also enumerated the public's top priorities that have shaken out of the outreach campaign.

Other input that has come forth overwhelmingly in the planning process, which includes on-line polling still available on the county's Web site link, is that at least 80 percent of participants support more cooperation between the county and its cities. Developing better regional transportation and housing closer to the workplace are also top priorities.

Herman also said that in a review of four possible growth scenarios that his group presented most respondents ranked scenario "C," which requires the least development of land and the greatest variety of housing at the top. Scenario "D," which involves development of a new town somewhere in the southern part of the county also received substantial support.

A discussion of a revised transfer of development program could be included in a scenario Clarion Associates hopes to present for community review in early February. The plan could also include ideas for helping cities find adequate funding for accommodating growth if that is where it is to be focused.

Herman said in his evaluation that Blaine County already stands on solid ground as it moves forward when compared to other communities in the West. Hailey Planning and Zoning Commissioner Trent Jones, a former Nature Conservancy employee and current ranch salesman, working throughout the West, backed up Herman's evaluation. Jones said the Wood River Valley, although on a precipice of growth, is in a unique position to preserve precious qualities of open space.

"I never would have thought that the preservation of open space would be as important as (it is) today," he said, adding that he supports joint planning efforts. "As counterintuitive as it seems to me not only as a citizen of Hailey, but also a citizen of the county ... I would sacrifice some of the (small town) character of Hailey for open space. There is a balance that needs to be struck."

Herman said that although the "Blaine County 2025" campaign has only involved a small portion of the total population, those who have responded represent the actual breakdown of the county with 65 percent of respondents coming from the cities and the balance coming out of the unincorporated county.

Nearly all Hailey city officials, including city council members, Planning and Zoning commissioners and Planning Director Kathy Grotto, attended the meeting, an achievement Mayor Susan McBryant noted. But, she also stressed that although she supports cooperative planning efforts between the county and the cities, the disproportionate burden and means to provide services between the north and south parts of the county needs to be addressed.

"(However) the county develops ... one way or another it affects you," Herman agreed, steering the assembly of city and county leaders toward a spirit of cooperation. He acknowledging that city leaders may need to talk amongst themselves to decide how they want to participate in the county process but, the county's motive is clearly to invite the cities into the fold.

Ketchum Planning Director Harold Moniz asked that everyone recognize the community's successes from 30 years of planning that have limited hillside development and commercial development in the county.

Ketchum City Councilman Baird Gourlay suggested that as the county is looking for ways for cities and the county to work together that some mechanisms are already in place. For example, he said the role of the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority could be expanded.

"It is the perfect mechanism for (city) liaisons," he said, adding that the community also needs a transportation authority to function as a similar link geared toward regional planning.

Carey Mayor Rick Baird reserved comment until near the end of the meeting, after Herman presented some of the findings from the "Blaine County 2025" "road shows," and the test of the four possible growth scenarios the consultants hope to fold into a final scenario for the new year.

The county's goal is to develop the growth management ordinances necessary to deal with the avalanche of development proposals expected to hit the county when the current development moratorium expires in July.

Baird, whose city is facing massive development pressure that could bring an additional 3,000 people into the county's most rural city, said that he agreed with Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorsen that the cities and the county need to cooperate. But, he also said he agreed with McBryant that the county can not dictate what the cities will do.

Adding that Carey's planning staff is a group of volunteers, Baird said that he is tired of talking, tired of planning.

"We've got our hands full with the 3,000 people coming our way," he said, explaining that proposals for some 1,300 units are on the table in his city. "We want to see some action. When that happens we will (participate)."

The call to action at the end of the meeting appeared to be for the county to stay on course with the current planning campaign, but to encourage each community to nominate a point person to attend county meetings as new ordinances are drawn up over the next six months.

County Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Larry Schoen stressed that, although he supports the outreach that the county is pursuing, the real meat of the County's work will come when planning and zoning commissioners bring proposed ordinances before the public.

"The public has a lot to say on these issues," he said at the meeting Wednesday. "My desire is to give them a chance for public comment. I want everyone to be heard.

Shoen said under the current time constraints of the moratorium that it is the responsibility of public officials to be aware of priorities and bring focus to the issues.

"We don't have to reinvent the wheel," Schoen said in an interview Thursday morning. "We don't have to accept all of the growth. We never have."

He added that in terms of cooperation between governing entities the coin should now be flipped and the cities should be inviting the county to their meetings to share their plans for growth.

"I would love to attend more city meetings, just as a private citizen," Schoen said. "The cities haven't built to the density they're zoned for now. The cities are in the catbird seat as far as I'm concerned."

Smart Growth Executive Director Christopher Simms, who has been a force behind the community effort to push for regional planning, happened upon the coffee shop interview in Hailey o0n Thursday. He said he is excited for the roundtable dialogue between the cities and the counties to continue.

Sun Valley City Administrator Virginia Egger, who also attended the Community Campus meeting said she has watched how mountain resort communities have evolved in Colorado and stressed that Blaine County is in a unique position to learn from the Colorado's development successes and failures.

"This is a development plan," Egger said, stressing that the county can still avoid the pitfalls Colorado has faced trying to manage growth. "If you don't (cooperate) it won't be great ... this could be cool. We could go from here to there."

Len Harlig, who described himself as "someone who used to be someone in the county," said a key element the community must not loose sight of is the water issue.

"I'd like to ask the question, 'Do we have enough water?' I wonder if we haven't skipped a step," he said.

County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael said the U.S. Geological Survey is moving forward with a comprehensive study of water quality and quantity in the county.

"There's not a simple answer that is going to be determined between now and July," she acknowledged. During the meeting Michael stressed the importance of staying on course with the "Blaine County 2025" campaign and the need for the cities and the county to work together, acknowledging that there is additional pressure on the cities to accept density.

"We are at a pivotal time. Interest in our community is unprecedented," she said, simultaneously stressing that by all accounts the public supports density to be absorbed in the cities and thanking city leaders for their participation in the county's planning efforts. "We appreciate you being here tonight."

Bellevue City Councilwoman Tammy Eaton said during the meat of the meeting that she has seen an ever-increasing level of cooperation between the cities and the county and that she, for one, appreciated the forum for dialogue.

"I thank the county for some of the positive steps they're taking," Eaton said, informing the group of the progress her city has made to cooperate in the struggle to provide basic services and promote in-fill. "I don't wait for someone to talk to me as a mom, which I am ... as a wife ... we'll be reaching out to everyone (for) knowledge."

To scribe the tools necessary for a countywide approach to growth, Senior County Planner Tom Bergin said he is grateful for the moratorium.

"It's been heavy for the past season for writing," Bergin said. "One of the advantages of the moratorium is that it allows us to focus on this. Writing will continue to be heavy through this winter and spring. It seems the county is committed to keeping the cities as informed as possible. It was constructive to have the cites involved and commenting. It is constructive to keep them in the loop."

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