Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Blaine 2025: Setting the Record Straight

Guest opinion by Sarah Michael

Sarah Michael is the chair of the Blaine County Board of Commissioners.


I am writing in response to Martin Flannes' Guest Opinion titled "BC 2025 Ordinances -- Effective and Fair?" in the March 31 Express. Mr. Flannes states that he helped to shape the goals of Blaine County's efforts as our project manager. To set the record straight, Flannes has not been involved in the Blaine County 2025 planning effort for almost a year now. Indeed, our last meeting with him in February 2006 was to discuss his clients' proposal to build a "new town" of possibly 1,000 homes in a rural area south of Timmerman Hill. Within this context, I would like to summarize the key principles behind the proposed ordinances and address several of his misstatements.

Principle #1: Target urban style density in and around the towns and limit developments in rural areas that are costly for the county to service. To reduce the costly demand for county services and protect working farms and ranches, the ordinances propose reducing allowed densities in the A-10 and A-20 Districts and limiting the size of cluster developments except when located closer to services and towns. Basically, the farther from county services and paved roads, the less density is proposed. Flannes opposes this fundamental approach. He wants to promote major cluster and planned communities anywhere in the county. But experience in other jurisdictions around the country and in Ada County and Boise clearly demonstrates that scattering large clusters and new planned communities throughout the county is generally a bad idea—these scattered development nodes cost taxpayers a bundle to serve, disrupt active farming and ranching, and fragment wildlife habitat.

Principle #2: Protect natural resources such as wetlands, hillsides and riparian areas, and wildlife habitat. Contrary to Flannes' assertion, the county's current standards to protect natural resources are weak at best. We propose to increase setbacks from rivers, streams, and wetlands, setting standards that already exist elsewhere, including our neighbor Camas County that has a 200 --foot stream setback. The proposed ordinances require a 100-foot setback from fragile wetland in the largest wetland system within Blaine County located in the Silver Creek and Big Wood River area from Picabo west to Stanton Crossing on U.S. Highway 20 and is important to water quality, fish, migrating birds and the recreating public. Flannes inaccurately states that wetlands, riparian and steep hillside areas are downzoned to zero density. Riparian areas within a buildable lot are proposed to be given full credit as are wetlands if the landowner participates in a voluntarily transferable development rights program. Flannes also incorrectly states that steep hillsides will have no allowable density.

Principle #3: Use incentives to promote the plan goals. Mr. Flannes' expresses a concern that higher protection of these sensitive natural areas will reduce tax incentives for landowners to donate conservation easements. Recent local reports and experience elsewhere suggests otherwise: Natural resource protection standards and reduced densities in remote rural areas actually have increased property values. The voluntary Transfer of Development Rights program to protect wetlands in the Big Wood, Silver Creek and Picabo areas also incorporates several recommendations from a Blaine County citizen advisory committee that included members of the ranching community. A targeted receiving area is created near Bellevue that can more readily be served by the county. Discussions continue with the towns to designate other receiving areas within or near their borders. The maximum density in the receiving area would be one unit/2.5 acres (not 1.25 as Flannes claims) with a minimum of 50% of any development being set aside as open space.

Principle # 4. Promote affordable housing. Citizens of Blaine County should not be distracted by red herrings like the affordable housing argument Flannes tosses out. He claims the proposed ordinances will impact affordable housing because we will limit the housing inventory in the unincorporated county. Another developer implied that Blaine County could build our way out of the affordable housing crunch, using Meridian and Nampa, as examples, but not mentioning the sprawl and traffic congestion resulting from this approach. In hearings, affordable housing advocates testified that affordable housing inventory should be located in our cities, near schools, grocery stores, and community events. Moreover, it is questionable if any of the scattered rural developments being proposed will be affordable.

The proposed ordinances attempt to strike a fair balance among community goals, natural resource protection, and preservation of property values. They are based on one of the most inclusive public processes ever undertaken in Blaine County—literally dozens of meetings, focus groups, and citizen surveys and a detailed consideration of what has worked in other western communities. The ordinances will now be scrutinized appropriately in a series of public hearings. No doubt some changes will be made before they are adopted, but now is the time to move forward.

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