Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Regional planning is overdue

Guest opinion by Ben Sinnamon

Ben Sinnamon is the executive director of Citizens For Smart Growth, a Hailey-based nonprofit organization that seeks to promote sound land-use decisions.


As I was floating Camas Creek last weekend, it occurred to me that growth management is like paddling whitewater. The moratorium provides an eddy, so we can scout it out. But come July, we drop in to Class 5 growth pressure. We can navigate, but we can't stop. The question is: Do the county's proposed 2025 ordinances offer us a good way through?

Let's start with the positive. The Smart Growth model says that allowable density should be highest in town centers, and decrease as we move away from services. Much of the county's remote land is currently zoned at A-10 (i.e. one unit per 10 acres), while more nearby land is zoned at A-20. We support the proposed rezone of the remote A-10 to R/R-40.

Including community input in the process was also a good idea. The people spoke wisely: The preferred scenario emphasized the preservation of agricultural land and wildlife habitat and "town-focused development."

To achieve these goals, the proposed ordinances need improvement. From a Smart Growth perspective, the biggest threat to agricultural land and wildlife habitat is not development per se, but sprawling development. Sprawl comes in various forms, but it always fragments or destroys ag land and habitat, not to mention community.

The primary Smart Growth tool for fighting rural sprawl is usually called "conservation development." This approach starts with stringent design criteria, followed by site-specific analysis by ecologists, landscape architects and planners. Wildlife habitat and corridors or the most agriculturally productive areas are identified and conserved. Development is clustered into the parts of the property where it will disturb wildlife or neighboring farms the least.

Under the proposed ordinances, the ability to cluster is very limited. In many areas, no clustering at all is allowed. Where it is allowed, the number of units in a cluster is limited to five. So, a 30-unit parcel could have a polka-dot pattern of six clusters of five, fragmenting habitat and ag land just as effectively and completely as single-unit sprawl. The proposed ordinances decide that five is always the maximum. In some places, larger clusters of up to 20 units will be more appropriate. A larger cluster equals more open space. Let the land decide.

The community also endorsed our goal of "town-focused" development. But a major element of the proposed ordinances defies that. The proposed transferable development rights ("TDR") program (an excellent idea) would shift density out of the Silver Creek area (an excellent goal) and into a rural sprawl pattern (one unit/2.5 acres) throughout the top third of the Bellevue Triangle.

We can only downzone so much and still be fair to our neighbors. We all want to move more development rights out of the remote parts of the county, off our ag land and our wildlife habitat, and a regional TDR program offers us a way to do that fairly and effectively. The community desperately wants to come together to work this TDR program out. But the continued inability of the county and the cities to communicate and cooperate on growth management is holding us up. I know it's complicated, both financially and politically, but regional planning is long overdue. We can get through this, but we need a paddle.

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