Friday, October 20, 2006

County leaders shoot down plan to protect wildlife

Final piece of 2025 legislation could be nullified by Proposition 2

Express Staff Writer

A bull moose grazes in Blaine County wetlands. A plan to protect wildlife habitat in areas under the jurisdiction of the county failed to get past county commissioners this week.

A proposed Wildlife Overlay District in Blaine County will not become law prior to the Nov. 7 vote on Proposition 2, jeopardizing its future. The Blaine County Commission chose not to pass the ordinance on Tuesday.

With commissioners citing a lack of Idaho Department of Fish and Game map work on wildlife habitat throughout the county, the ordinance was shot down 2-1. The commissioners will revisit the legislation, which is the final piece of the contentious and lengthy 2025 planning process, on Nov. 9. The remaining ordinances in the 2025 plan effectively curbed future growth in the county's remote and riparian areas.

But even if the Wildlife Overlay District—designed to protect prime wildlife habitat from future development—is eventually approved, it may not have much authority if Proposition 2 also passes.

Touted as a savior of private property rights, Proposition 2 would among other things force local governments to pay landowners when new land-use laws, such as zoning restrictions, reduce the value of their properties. The Idaho initiative is receiving funding from across the country.

The maps, which last summer Fish and Game officials said were complex and would not be complete until December or January, would have outlined wildlife migration corridors, essential winter habitat, nesting and reproductive areas.

"This is a messy piece of legislation," Commissioner Tom Bowman said Tuesday. "We tried too hard and got two steps ahead of ourselves. Fish and Game were the impetus for avoiding critical wildlife areas, yet they won't tell us what these areas are. I have to take the risk of not having this written before the Proposition 2 vote and not vote on this as it is."

Commissioner Dennis Wright was opposed to the ordinance from the beginning.

"I detest having to work out of fear," Wright said. "And that is how we have been forced to act. I think our process has worked well, but few of us recognize the full ramifications of this ordinance as it is, so I won't vote for it."

The ordinance's lone supporter, Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael, said the proposed Wildlife Overlay District would have allowed the county "to look at cumulative impacts and entire ecosystems so we know we are protecting critical forage and reproductive ranges as we develop out in the county."

Blaine County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tim Graves suggested that the objectives of the ordinance be enforced during the subdivision application process to prevent the bulldozing of nesting areas.

"We've seen this happen a couple of times already," he said.

The initial assessment of wildlife impacts in sensitive areas will remain under the discretion of Fish and Game.

Larry Schoen, chairman of the county's Planning and Zoning Commission, which recommended the ordinance for approval, said he was disappointed that the ordinance wasn't approved prior to the possible enactment of Proposition 2, especially since the commissioners seemed to be hung up on unavailable mapping.

"A map is not a perfect document in this case," said Schoen, who is also the Democratic candidate for Blaine County Commission District 1, which represents the south county.

Schoen said the majority of the P&Z commissioners were comfortable moving forward without the maps since wildlife trends would likely change over time, and the primary objectives of the ordinance could be achieved without the mapping.

"The main point of what we did at the P&Z was to ensure that when a developer comes in with a project, the wildlife impacts are addressed first. That is the big picture," Schoen said. "You could argue 'til the cows come home what would be the right buffer size on the maps. What we wanted was for these types of things to be determined on a case-by-case basis."

Schoen said he was also taken aback by Bowman's comments that the ordinance "is a messy piece of legislation."

"What Clarion gave the county was a messy thing," Schoen said about the county's consultant, which helped craft the 2025 ordinances. "But what we gave the (commissioners) was much clearer and much better conceptually. It was simpler to interpret without lessening the standards. I think we did a good job improving upon what Clarion gave us."

As crafted by P&Z, Schoen said the ordinance would force developers to hire experts to do wildlife surveys and habitat assessments before they could put in roads, homes, or any other infrastructure.

"It put science first," Schoen said.

And that's what the Wood River Land Trust, which seeks to protect the county's wildlife and riparian areas, has been pushing for all along.

"Our hope has really been that the county can make it so concerns of wildlife can be addressed at the front end of the planning process," said Land Trust Project Coordinator Kathryn Goldman.

Goldman stressed that the process of creating a Wildlife Overlay District is not yet over but she acknowledged that "Prop 2 is the big wild card."

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