Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Is it time for a new city?

Affordable, free-market housing centerpiece of Spring Creek plan

Express Staff Writer

Spring Creek Ranch near Timmerman Junction on state Highway 75 could be the site of a new Blaine County city. Developer Bob Kantor of The Kirk Group says a pending study will help determine whether the project can even get off the ground. Photo by David N. Seelig

Nestled in a valley in the Timmerman Hills northeast of Magic Reservoir is a chunk of private land that's part dream and part reality.

The dream, which for the past dozen years has been swimming around in the heads of developers Bob Kantor and George Kirk, of The Kirk Group based in Ketchum, is to turn the land into a brand new, self-sustaining town. Called Spring Creek, the new town could go a long way towards relieving the county's growing pains by providing an abundance of low-cost housing.

The reality is that it's too soon to tell if the concept could actually work, but it will be the focus of a study next week by members of the Urban Land Institute, an international nonprofit research and education organization supported by more than 30,000 members.

Spring Creek investors hired the Urban Land Institute, which was formed in 1936 and specializes in developing solutions for a variety of land-use conundrums. While investors will cover the organization's travel expenses, which will run in the ballpark of $120,000, Kantor insists that the study will be unbiased.

"They're not for hire," said Kirk. "They're a group of volunteer experts with a wide range of experience."

Mary Beth Corrigan, vice president of the land institute's advisory services program and a member of the panel, said she views the study "as a way of furthering this mission because it involves helping the county grapple with serious issues such as workforce housing, environmental conservation and quality of life for all people in a community."

She added that the "ULI prides itself on being objective and providing practical advice. Sometimes that advice is what the community needs to hear—not what it wants to hear."

Kantor said he would fully accept the Urban Land Institute's advice, even if it shatters his dream.

"The ULI could come in and say, 'That's not the right way to do it,'" Kantor said. "Then we would be stuck, because we want to do it the right way."

The panel, which plans to interview about 100 local community leaders and government officials, including members of the Blaine County Commission, will unveil its findings and recommendations to curious local citizens at the Liberty Theatre in Hailey at the conclusion of its visit on June 30.

Meanwhile, Blaine County is immersed in its own land-use planning process, known as the 2025 plan. Consisting of a series of ordinances designed to tackle future runaway growth by discouraging development in rural areas and encouraging it closer to the cities, the 2025 plan does not address the concept of new towns, which would require alterations to the county's comprehensive plan.

Kantor has no problem with that and claims he's not proposing an alternative to 2025.

Spring Creek Ranch, which is still used for agriculture and, according to Kantor, has some of the oldest water rights in the county, is located just southwest of the junction of highways 75 and 20 about 12 miles south of Bellevue. Kantor insists that he and Kirk are avid conservationists and that the new town would be built with a "minimal amount of impact on the environment."

About 1,000 units—a mix of apartments, affordable and free-market homes—would be consolidated on 800 acres of the 2,800-acre property, almost all of it in a tight valley that is generally visible only from the highway to the east.

The rest of the property would be preserved—all wetlands and riparian areas would be protected—and interwoven with hiking and biking trails, parks and sports fields.

The town, which would include its own fire and police station, city hall, urgent care center, school, restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores, movie theatres, hotels and library, would be built from the inside-out.

Surrounding the town square would be a mix of apartments and retail spaces with lots increasing in size farther away from the town center. As envisioned, the project would be required to include 20 percent affordable housing—pending the official approval of the county's subdivision inclusionary housing ordinance on June 22—but Kantor believes many of the free-market homes will be affordable to the average Blaine County family, which earns $71,200 a year.

Kantor said the project is just far enough away from the Wood River Valley and the county's main population center that land and building costs should be far less expensive than the county average.

"You want a mix of everybody," Kantor said as he marveled over the panoramic views of mountains and prairie surrounding the property. "I'd live here."

Though Kantor and Kirk have not built a town from the ground up before, they do have experience in developing affordable housing. Located just south of Ketchum, the Quail Creek subdivision is the product of their efforts. Approved by the Blaine County Commission in March, and then appealed by an adjacent landowner in May, it is the largest affordable housing-specific project in Blaine County's history.

In addition to the Urban Land Institute, Spring Creek has also caught the eyes of the county's elected officials, who are somewhat split on the vision.

County Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael has repeatedly said the county is committed to improving the existing municipalities, but she is interested in the forthcoming report.

"I would want to look at the impacts on our current incorporated cities," she said.

Commissioner Tom Bowman also has concerns, specifically over the cost of services in the new town.

"We did some calculations and figured out that to man a fire station with two people on duty 24 hours a day will cost in the neighborhood of $500,000 a year," Bowman said, adding that he's curious to see what the Urban Land Institute panel has to say. "I want to see how it's going to work, how much it will cost to create and run a new city."

Kantor claims the cost of services will be covered by Spring Creek taxpayers, and the county will not need to subsidize the town.

Commissioner Dennis Wright believes the idea warrants serious consideration, mainly because he thinks it could limit sprawl while providing real solutions to the affordable housing problem in Blaine County.

"I believe, personally, that the Spring Creek location has 100 percent of the amenities, the location criteria, the highway connection and, most of all, it could bring some actual affordable homes or lots to the working class in this valley," Wright said. "Of course, it's a jump in our manner of thinking, but I believe the possibility is there to create a literally viable, sustainable community as opposed to a large subdivision."

Wright, who said he's considered the Spring Creek Ranch a prime location for a new town for years, believes a series of ordinances designed to boost affordable housing "will never take care of the deficit."

"You could take some of that demand and concentrate it in a place (like Spring Creek)," he said. "In the long run I believe you would enhance the development patterns and life of a lot of people that are going to try and stay here."

Wright, who will retire from the county commission this fall, said he hopes future commissioners will be "smart enough and open minded enough to look at all possibilities."

The difference between dream and reality will be unveiled during the June 30 meeting at the Liberty Theatre at 9 a.m.

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