Blaine County would benefit from a new city, and Spring Creek Ranch near Timmerman Hill would be a suitable location, according to a panel of experts from the Urban Land Institute. Now, however, is not the time for such an undertaking, they said.
The panel, which was hired by The Kirk Group in Ketchum to evaluate Blaine County's land-use patterns and determine the feasibility of a new town, particularly at the Spring Creek site, unveiled its findings to the curious local citizens at Hailey's Liberty Theatre Friday morning.
The six panelists spent all of last week touring Blaine County, reviewing local land-use practices and codes, and interviewing community leaders and elected officials to reach their conclusion.
"We believe a new town could absolutely be appropriate," said the panel's chair, James M. DeFrancia, a principal of Lowe Enterprises Inc., a national real estate development company in Aspen, Colo. "And Spring Creek as a site is suitable."
But DeFrancia stressed that public and government support and a comprehensive regional study will be vital to the success of a new town. None of those prerequisites are in place at this point.
"At the end of the day, a new town is a collaborative effort," DeFrancia said. "It takes patience. That might be the name of the new town: Patience."
Erecting a town from scratch in Blaine County has been a goal of The Kirk Group's Bob Kantor and George Kirk for the last 12 years.
Kantor said he was encouraged by the Urban Land Institute's report.
"We're now looking forward to trying to find a forum to work with the county and the people of Blaine County to figure out if it is a good and timely idea," Kantor said.
The planned development would include about 1,000 units and provide much-needed affordable housing—both deed-restricted and low-cost free-market—and use smart growth principles, Kantor said.
Ketchum-based Developing Green, which offers a wide range of environment-friendly development services to owners, developers, lenders, conservation groups, and public agencies, is a consultant on the project. Kantor said about 70 percent of the 2,800-acre property will be preserved.
Kantor has repeatedly said the location of Spring Creek—just southwest of the junction of highways 75 and 20, about 12 miles south of Bellevue, is ideal for a new town. The site is tucked into a narrow valley and is largely out of site but easily accessed from the highways.
Kantor said public transit would be incorporated into the planning of the town, which would include its own fire and police stations, city hall, school, medical clinic, movie theatre, hotel, library and stores. The property is about six miles north of the planned site of Blaine County's new airport.
The Urban Land Institute is an international nonprofit research and education organization supported by more than 30,000 members. The Kirk Group paid for the panelists' travel expenses, which ran about $120,000, according to Kantor.
But the Urban Land Institute insists the study was unbiased.
DeFrancia said much of the discussion in the interview process was focused on the county's 2025 planning process, which will limit growth in the south county's rural areas and focus it near existing cities. Four of the more contentious ordinances—there are seven in total—were approved by Blaine County commissioners Thursday night. Several landowners have told the county they will sue, citing property rights violations.
"Not necessarily everybody (we talked to) is in agreement with 2025," said Urban Land Institute panelist Stan Zemler, who is the town manager of Vail, Colo.
To a certain extent, that also includes the panel.
"We are concerned that the TDR program and the downzone will create sprawl in the south valley," said panelist Mary J. Roberts, director of the community development department in Littleton, Colo.
The TDR program, which stands for transfer of development rights, seeks to compensate landowners in downzoned areas of the south county by allowing them to transfer development rights to receiving areas just south of Bellevue's city limits in the southern stretches of the Wood River Valley.
Some seem keen on the new town proposal simply because they're opposed to 2025.
Ed Terrazas, of Hailey, asked the Urban Land Institute panel if they would also scrutinize the 2025 plan.
"It seems we would benefit greatly from an unbiased, collaborative effort," Terrazas said Friday.
Terrazas owns property near East Fork that will be downzoned when the new 2025 ordinances come into effect today.
Others were excited about the possibility of a massive influx of low-cost housing.
"We've been thinking about it a lot, and we're very encouraged by what the panel advanced," said Drew Sanderford, associate director of the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority, which seeks to provide affordable housing to the county's work force. "It's always good to consider all of the options."
On the flip side, many—including Blaine County Commissioners Tom Bowman and Sarah Michael—are still not convinced the town is a good idea.
"I thought (the Urban Land Institute) raised some good points about putting the issue in a larger regional context of, 'How does this fit with the overall county-wide economic development?'" Michael said. "Until you look at it in the regional context with the other five cities, their plan and the county's plan for economic development, we won't know whether we're comfortable with it."
Laird Erman, of Ketchum, wondered why a new town would be built as other existing towns are struggling financially.
"Why are we going about reinventing the wheel when we have cities within the locale we can use," Erman said.
Erman also noted that the town of Richfield, located about 20 miles southwest of Carey, in Lincoln County, will be very close to the new airport and still has 135 undeveloped acres within the city limits.
Tom Blanchard, Bellevue city administrator, said Bellevue has yet to take an official position on the new town concept but stressed that the south valley city is keeping an eye on the situation.
"In a sense, we're all in the same market," Blanchard said. "There's also a huge volume of housing coming on line here within the next two years, and the county, as soon as moratorium is over, will have a huge amount of housing.
"In the next five years, my bet is we will have a lot of market opportunity out there."
The Urban Land Institute's Linda Hoffman said that aside from public policy and government support, "In every way we found the site to be quite suitable." But data on the economic feasibility of the project has yet to be provided.
Kantor stresses the project will pay for itself.
"It should not add to the tax burden of anyone in this county," he said. "We need to work with the county to generate that data, and it won't be something that we independently authorize.
"It has to be reliable to the (county) but also the people of Blaine County."