Friday, May 5, 2006

2025 panic morphing into acceptance

Familiarity, P&Z revisions foster support of sweeping zoning proposals

Express Staff Writer

Four weeks ago, the 2025 planning process was like a runaway train full of squabbling passengers who could agree on only one thing: The ride was sure to end in a massive wreck.

Of the 60 or so people who spoke in the first two hearings—there were a total of seven crammed into a three-week period—many complained that the proposed ordinances were flawed, confusing, unfair, misguided, illegal, or a combination of all of the above.

Even the agricultural community was split, with lifelong friends on opposite sides of the fence.

But then something changed.

People started smiling. Panic dissipated and tensions eased. Comments were less harsh—many were even supportive.

By April 27, the day the Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission issued a unanimous recommendation of approval to the county commissioners, the collective arms of the public had unfolded—while not a full embrace, at least they were opening.

"There's always this initial shock and awe" with a new major proposal, said Len Harlig, who served on the county P&Z from 1985 to 1992 and was a county commissioner from 1993 to 2001. "I expected this, I've been watching it for 20 years."

Harlig, who lives north of Ketchum and still attends county government meetings on a regular basis, said people often get overwhelmed by proposals like 2025, which includes seven ordinances designed to curb future growth and promote environmentally smart design. If passed, they will dramatically alter the county's zoning codes.

Panic is the first reaction, Harlig said.

"I think people started off at the extreme edges," Harlig said. "They think, 'How does this effect me?' It's very difficult for most people to place the larger welfare of the community above their own needs.

"But then they listened to the discussions and better understood ... and eventually they moved closer to a center position where there's greater acceptance."

And beneath the concerns, accusations, and fears, a handful of citizens repeatedly encouraged the P&Z to stay the course.

"I want you to know that it may be a bumpy ride, but you're on the right track," Linda Thorson, of Sun Valley, told the P&Z in the first 2025 public hearing April 6. "Let's not lose the last best reason for why we live here."

With a number of developers and consultants bashing the 2025 planning process, some believe because of personal agendas, Thorson and Mary Ann Peters, of Ketchum, formed Friends of Blaine County to promote honesty and public participation during the hearing process.

Tom Blanchard, Bellevue city administrator, echoed Thorson in that first hearing.

"You will hear a lot of reasons why you shouldn't do this," he told the P&Z. "It's the same argument you heard for the hillside ordinances and stream (and wetlands setbacks). When we look back on that, we do so with a certain amount of pride.

"Keep the high ground ... the direction you're going is a good one."

As the hearings continued, the number of attendees dropped, and so did many of the concerns.

Harlig thinks the change in attitude was largely due to the public's familiarity with the ordinances—the more they learned the less they feared—and the fact the P&Z made several revisions to the ordinances that made them more flexible and fair.

The most notable revisions included easing up on proposed downzones within a three-mile radius of the cities, and requesting further study of the Transfer of Development Rights program, specifically the receiving area. Many have complained that the receiving area in the TDR program—designed to discourage development in the environmentally sensitive areas of the Bellevue Triangle while encouraging it near Bellevue—needs to be expanded to include the entire county. The P&Z agreed and advised county commissioners to broaden the TDR receiving areas and put more pressure on the cities.

"The P&Z was able to pull together a lot of information and make sense of a lot of good intentions," Scott Boettger, executive director of the Wood River Land Trust, said this week. "There are things we would like to add to, but with all the different interests that were trying to push for stalling ... I think they have done a great job."

Boettger and the land trust were part of an ad-hoc group formed by Harlig in the early days of the hearings to address certain concerns in the ordinances. Other participants included Citizens for Smart Growth, Developing Green, the Environmental Resource Center, Blaine Ketchum Housing Authority, Advocates for Real Community Housing, Wood River Rideshare, and numerous consultants and concerned citizens.

Harlig said the general consensus among the group, which had been meeting weekly during the hearings, is that "there's still some fine tuning that needs to take place (but) the majority are behind the goals and objectives of 2025."

Jo Lowe, a board member of Citizens for Smart Growth, referred to the 2025 process as a "learning curve."

"New ideas will have to come into play and the realization has to become clear that we all share a common resource, not only in this valley, but the county," Lowe said. "We have a common water system, highway system, and a community gateway. They all depend on environmental and rural values and if we allow sprawl and subdivisions in remote and rural areas ... it will have the effects of a successful virus, and successful viruses kill their hosts."

As for the rest of the community, Harlig said "there are still people who are absolutely livid. But a lot of them are in it strictly for economic reasons."


What's next?

Blaine County Commissioners will host a 2025 public workshop Thursday, May 18, at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey. A time has yet to be set. The Planning and Zoning Commission will begin reviewing an additional three related ordinances in June.

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