Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Politicos bump heads on regional planning

Spring Creek discussion inspires broader vision

Express Staff Writer

Even if Spring Creek never becomes a new Blaine County city near Timmerman Junction, the process of considering it has already succeeded in moving toward a new Blaine County regional planning authority.

Spring Creek developers George Kirk and Bob Kantor hosted a workshop Thursday, Oct. 12, at the Community Campus in Hailey following recommendations put forth by a June survey conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute.

Land-use attorney and Spring Creek representative Martin Flannes chaired the meeting, which attracted several elected city and county officials eager to discuss regional planning in light of the Spring Creek proposal.

Former Blaine County Commissioner Len Harlig said he had "more questions than answers right now, but I do know that a new town cannot succeed without support from the county and its cities. This is an opportunity to get together as a community and start thinking about global issues."

Bellevue resident Chris Haugh voiced concern about the cost of a new town south of Bellevue.

"Who is going to pay for this?" he asked. "Developing lots seems a lot cheaper."

County Commissioner Sarah Michael pointed out that surveys conducted prior to the county's "2025" planning initiative may be helpful in assessing the tax base necessary for the new town.

"We could run the numbers right now to see what combination of residential, light industrial and commercial levies would be necessary to support a new town," she said.

Former county P&Z Commissioner Jay Coleman contended a previous panel discussion had been stacked with real estate agents and others who were vested in the project's potential success.

"You have to include the opposition to this project," he said. "This is a population bomb. You are building a giant mouth to feed. The bigger it gets, the more unsavory becomes our behavior to feed it. This is not going to be the nicest place to live with 40,000 people instead of 20,000."

Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson expressed his interest in seeing a regional plan develop, pointing out the necessity of gathering data, remaining transparent for the public, and keeping the focus on affordable housing.

"Blaine County is one of the most beautiful places to live in this country," he said. "Whatever we do here, people will come. Right now we have the opportunity to do it right."

Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant said her city would participate in the discussion of a regional plan, "but not if it is a waste of time. I have sat through years of meetings already which do nothing more than work out rules on how we are going to work together."

Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority Vice Chairman John Flattery advised hiring professional help in dealing with the overarching issues of economic development, transportation and safety in the county and its inherent municipalities.

"I struggle constantly with jurisdictional turf wars in my work," he said.

Len Harlig agreed that a layer of professional help in local government was a good idea.

"But the politicians who make decisions have to buy into the plan from the beginning, or we will be back where we are now in 10 years," he said. "The business owners are in pain. If we don't start addressing these issues, all this talk will be like presiding over the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Longtime Ketchum resident Kimberly Rogers traced the demise of the local economy from when Ketchum and Sun Valley went from being a resort community to a resort-home community.

"There used to be plenty of hotel rooms here," she said. "People would come here and spend two weeks eating out on the town and shopping. Now they eat at home. The wages for waitresses are the same as they were in the 1980s."

Rogers pointed out that many resort towns give financial incentives to young workers so they can afford to live and work there.

McBryant recommended collecting letters from county and city leaders describing the issues they have been dealing with in the last year as the first step in forming a regional plan.

"Our needs are for additional housing and economic opportunity. You cannot penalize the lowest common denominator. For 2,500 people, you need to be a city with its own taxing possibilities, rather than having the county absorb the costs."

Kirk said it was time community leaders in the area became "public and notorious" in expressing the needs and expectations of their constituents.

"This is something that has never been accomplished to my knowledge," he said, recommending that a "constraints map" be drafted to reflect the priorities of all local governments. "If there was an authority, which we could bring our homework to, we would provide it. If Spring Creek is not successful, at least we will have ventured."

Kantor pointed out that the Urban Land Institute, which he hired to assess the feasibility of a new town in Blaine County, is a nonprofit organization, rather than a private consulting firm.

"The plans for this project are non site-specific. This could happen in Rock Creek or elsewhere," he said. "We are not in jeopardy on our property."

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