Friday, April 28, 2006

Help lead, support Ketchum's planners

Guest opinion by Mary Jane Conger

Mary Jane Conger was born and raised in Ketchum, where she still resides. She worked to start the Heritage Museum and has also served as a member of the city's Planning and Zoning board.


The entire Ketchum community owes a debt of gratitude to our city government officials who, to a person, appear to be rising to the overwhelming challenge of working together in the best interests of the city they serve to tackle head on a "first" in developing a city core master plan. Our community responsibility is to lend support and cooperation every step of the way by keeping up to date with progress and by participating in the rapidly moving planning process through questions and input. Not wait until it is too late.

Another historic "first" in the annals of Ketchum's history occurred in the early 1970s when a group of Ketchum residents, inspired by the actions of the county to embark on developing Blaine County's first Comprehensive Land Use Plan, rallied to spend the hundreds of tedious hours required to develop Ketchum's own timely Comprehensive Land Use Plan. Both documents of intent and their accompanying governing ordinances, which have been strengthened and added to as the population and building demands have increased, continue to reflect the values and a way of life residents want to maintain. They form the bases that define our present land uses, the outcome of which, as we have been previously reminded, most of us take for granted today.

It takes constant effort to maintain our policy of no hillside development and no strip development (commercial outcroppings between cities). If you need comparative reminders, do visit Colorado ski towns and be alarmed, as Colorado residents are, by the loss of mountain views in and of the Rockies. In your travels to anyplace U.S.A. look at the rampant examples of ugly strip development leading miles into and out of our small towns and cities and be cognizant of the high price paid absent constant public awareness and willingness to become involved. Our outdated transportation corridor continues to be a work in progress and also requires public participation.

Planner Tom Hudson, a city consultant, has done a remarkable job of creatively reflecting desires of the community, gained over dozens of hours or community meetings over several months. As recommendations begin to surface, so do a multitude of questions. The first are in picking up the pieces of a failed housing authority and taking action on the complex issue of affordable workforce housing, so vital to our city. Council members may be poised to fast-track a move to build all targeted 800 housing units in the downtown city core. This is contingent on taking dramatic changes in building heights (increased to four stories from creeping three stories) and broad downtown density increases to make this major action financially feasible. Will there be enforceable controls taken to balance empty retail and market-based spaces with numbers of building permits issued? Reasoning goes that these workers will add vitality to businesses. Is this a realistic expectation on workers in this very high priced shopping area? Or a basis for putting more great pressure on the city core?

Questions need to be answered as to how City Council members can make an informed decision on workforce housing without including other available land, especially the remaining sizeable city-owned Park and Ride parcel? Even Tom Hudson has expressed his understandable frustration by his mandate's limitation in the housing aspect of the plan. A neighborhood in the making with underground parking facilities, frequent KART bus connections for easy access to downtown Ketchum, proximity to the YMCA, our newest highly heralded community-centered addition, make this an ideal site for living units. This could take pressure off downtown Ketchum.

The best and perhaps only opportunity in the near future exists now to extend the affordable workforce housing aspect of the Ketchum Core Master Plan. The current study was wisely broadened to include some areas on the west side of Ketchum. Understandably, every project has to have a beginning and end. If the city were to invoke a one-time cutback on everyone and every agency asking for money for the coming year, including the chamber of commerce, during upcoming budget proceedings, it would more than pay Mr. Hudson and would be of great benefit to the city in the long run as well as to all who live and work here. Keep in mind that this master plan, limited as it is by its moratorium and planner funding, is likely a one-time shot. Let's take advantage of its momentum and community support to make the plan as inclusive as possible.

The diminishing "character" of Ketchum continues as a sticking point. Meanings of "character" seem to change, depending on the amount of money involved. But make no mistake, it matters. Tourists and workers visit and return, caught by the allure of the "character" of the city. People are leaving Vail, for example, because of the increase in high-rise buildings and loss of "character." We still have mountain views for everyone to enjoy, young and old, from a walk or a downtown bench. Remaining small and low-rise buildings add "character" thanks to the open space to see around and over them. (The four new three-story banks on Main Street that keep our Main Street dark and icy in winter notwithstanding). There is already quiet talk circulating among developers of five stories. Talk of the benefits of getting rid of downtown open space to allow for incrementally taller and wider bulk buildings insults our intelligence, is a detriment to Ketchum.

As you enter Ketchum from the south next time, take a good look at the open space on the left at the top of the hill as your eyes are drawn to magnetic, towering Bald Mountain (above and around the remaining cabins of former Bald Mountain Hot Springs longtime workforce housing). Feel Ketchum's welcoming arms open to you where high-rise buildings don't block out all views of our mountains. Great location for the chamber of commerce.

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