Wednesday, July 5, 2006

2025 plan passes amid jeers, cheers

Express Staff Writer

Following 18 months of public workshops, planning sessions and hearings, development potential in Blaine County was slashed significantly last Thursday when the Blaine County Commission approved four ordinances central to the county's 2025 planning effort, which is designed to curb future growth.

To those who value conservation of the county's natural resources and open spaces, approval of the ordinances is a step in the right direction. But for landowners counting on their potential to subdivide and earn a profit, the ordinances might be a nightmare, and some plan to sue the county.

"The ordinances build upon more than 30 years of land-use policies that have maintained the rural character of the county," Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael said Monday. "Landowners have experienced meteoric gains in property values as a result of these land-use policies. I believe that the board's actions to contain residential sprawl, preserve agricultural lands, and protect hillsides and other natural resources will ensure our quality of life and will enable landowners to realize higher prices for their property."

Commissioners Michael and Tom Bowman noted that the planning effort has been called one of the most aggressive and progressive in the West.

"It's been called a lot more than that," joked County Commissioner Dennis Wright, who represents the south county, where the most significant downzones occurred.

Michael and Bowman approved all four ordinances, while Wright only voted in favor of one, which will reduce development potential in the county's unproductive agricultural areas from A-10 (one unit of development per 10 acres) to RR-40 (one unit per 40 acres).

"Let the record hear a hardy, 'No,'" Wright said when the commissioners voted on the second and arguably most controversial ordinance—ordinance 2A, which will downzone the county's active agricultural land from A-20 to A-40.

"My (votes) reflect a couple hundred people who contacted me in my district," Wright said.

They also reflect a split in the community over the entire 2025 plan.

"It really isn't in keeping with what we thought a pluralistic society was about," said Hailey resident Ed Terrazas, who claims that land he owns near East Fork will lose 75 percent of its development potential. "If it was your wallet, you would not appreciate it."

Terrazas hammered the county commissioners throughout the final hearing Thursday night, arguing that the 2025 process was driven by paranoid fears of future growth and will only cause already high real estate prices to escalate further. He believes the county will be barraged with lawsuits.

In June, the county commissioners asked Tim Graves, Blaine County's chief deputy prosecuting attorney, to formally examine whether any of the ordinances would violate private property rights, specifically the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment.

"Based upon the foregoing application of the Idaho Regulatory Takings Act guidelines and my review of United States and Idaho Supreme Court precedent, it is my opinion that the proposed ordinances are a legitimate exercise of the board's legislative authority and will not result in a taking of private property without compensation," Graves concluded in a six-page report.

Michael told Terrazas that the county is just as likely to be sued over the approval of developments.

"There has been a real growth in (those cases)," Michael said. "The county has been sued by ranchers when (the P&Z has) approved subdivisions near them.

"We are at risk of getting sued either way."

Later, Graves stressed that he believes that the ordinances will actually lead to "an increase in property values."

A small group of farmers and ranchers, who collectively own a lot of land in the south county, support the 2025 plan because they believe rural development will kill agriculture and drive land prices down. Trent Jones, a partner with Hall and Hall, one of the nation's oldest and largest farm and ranch real estate companies, has backed their assertions.

In a letter to the commissioners during the hearing process, Jones stated that "in areas with very strong scenic, recreational, and open space amenities—such as we enjoy here in Blaine County—property values actually increase as a result of preserving farms and ranches and reducing the potential for rural residential subdivision."

He listed the Sawtooth Valley north of Ketchum, Centennial Valley in southwest Montana and the upper Blackfoot River basin northeast of Missoula as "real life examples of this market condition."

Jeremy Fryberger, of Ketchum, has been a regular attendee of the 2025 hearings. He believes much of the opposition has been driven by "short-term monetary concerns."

"As for long-term benefits, I wish the process could have gone further to protect agriculture, open space, wildlife, and riparian areas," he said. "However, I also realize that this process was a first step, as well as a series of negotiated compromises.

"In the long run, the county will be much better off than it otherwise would have been."

Commissioner Bowman has repeatedly stated that the first four ordinances will provide a framework for future regional planning.

"We will establish these ordinances and see how they work," he said.

Of some concern to the commissioners is an initiative that could require government to compensate landowners whose property values have diminished due to land-use laws. The initiative will be on Idaho's ballot in November 2006.

The 2025 planning process will continue with the review of three additional ordinances that deal primarily with riparian, wetland and wildlife setbacks, as well as the zoning of public land. The Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission will resume its review of those ordinances July 13 at 6:30 p.m. in the Old County Courthouse.

The four newly approved zoning ordinances will become law today. The county's moratorium on subdivisions will expire July 11.

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