An enormous crowd created standing-room-only space last Thursday for the first hearing about a proposed 338-unit development five miles south of Bellevue, on Cove Ranch.
The development team, Cove Springs Development Inc., presented the Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission with an outline of the plan and promised that it would embrace the south county's rural tradition by protecting open space, agricultural and ranching operations, wildlife habitat, water and the area's sweeping big sky views.
But several citizens, including a former resident of the ranch, stressed that the development would actually do the opposite.
"From my perspective, the most critical wildlife habitat today is where the development (will be built)," said Fred Brossy, who lived on the ranch in the early 1970s, when it was owned by his family. "I challenge the commission to look at this very closely."
Brossy recalled the fragile sage grouse leks—or mating grounds—that dominate the area of the ranch where the brunt of the development will occur.
"Any proximity will endanger that," Brossy said, adding, "338 homes—that's probably 338 dogs."
Land that elk and deer rely on for winter habitat will also be permanently impacted, Brossy said.
But the developers—Steve Beevers, Anna Mathieu, Jan Edelstein and Cynthia and John Miley—contend that they voluntarily removed the bulk of the development out of terrain that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game identified as wildlife habitat.
About 90 percent of the 4,600-acre ranch will remain undisturbed. One thousand acres will continue to be farmed, and more than 2,600 acres of wildlife habitat will be permanently protected.
Since the developers submitted their application in December 2004, the development will be exempt from new land-use ordinances attached to the 2025 plan.
The brunt of the development will be set about a mile east of Gannett Road and clustered within 650 acres near the toe of the ranch's hillsides. Two big ranch parcels—152 acres and 3,843 acres—would consume the rest of the ranch. Four neighborhoods will offer lots ranging in size from 7,200 square feet to four acres. The bulk of the density will be situated in the center of the development, which will include a park, ball fields, post office, bike trails and public transportation hubs.
"We are committed to having a diverse community in Cove Springs," Cynthia Miley said. "Given the rapidly escalating land prices in Blaine County, we need a significant component of community housing to achieve diversity. We want full-time residents, ranging from young, single professionals to growing families to retirees."
A modern wastewater treatment facility would serve the entire community.
In addition to Brossy, six other citizens expressed concerns over the development's potential impact on natural resources. Many questioned whether a new development is even necessary.
"This is a great valley," said Barb Patterson, a fourth-generation Blaine County resident. "We're not scared of growth, but how much do we need and how fast? I have a real concern about how many projects you can put in this area."
Several other potential developments are in the pipeline for the south county.
Margaret Macdonald Stewart, who lives in the Bellevue Triangle, wondered how the development could meet water demands created by 338 new units.
"We live in a desert," she said. "Droughts are becoming more frequent and severe. Daily household water, where will that come from? Water, water, water should be the number one question."
The developers promise to comply with Fish and Game standards to mitigate any impacts on wildlife habitat. The ranch's superior water rights—dating to 1882—will sufficiently supply the development's demands, they claim.
Evan Roberts, an attorney representing Cove Springs Development, Inc., told the commissioners that in all of his experience working with developers he hasn't "seen anything get me as excited as Cove Ranch."
Past developments Roberts represented include Blaine Ranch, Starweather and Northridge.
He said the development team is genuinely committed to preserving the ranch's natural resources. He also warned the P&Z that if Cove Springs is not approved, the property will eventually be developed in another manner.
"You can't look at this as something that will sit there in its current condition," he said. "It will get developed."
Matt Lutz, a forecaster with the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center, reiterated Roberts' point, saying that development is inevitable, and it might as well occur responsibly.
Cove Springs developers have hired a dozen consultants, including wildlife, environmental and green building experts to assist in the design of the community.
"We can't put up a gate," Lutz said. "Growth will happen, and we might as well embrace people doing their best. I think this is a very solid idea."
Frank Batcha, who lives near Cove Ranch, countered that "I don't subscribe to the notion that development is inevitable."