Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Wildlife protection boosted in county

New ordinance enforces stiff requirements on future subdivisions

Express Staff Writer

A bull elk makes his way through a snow-covered ranch property. Blaine County last week enacted new planning regulations to protect elk and other wildlife.

Wildlife officially joined rivers, wetlands, public lands, agriculture and rural open space in Blaine County's massive effort to mitigate the effects of future growth and development on environmentally sensitive and remote areas.

New subdivisions will now be subject to another laundry list of requirements after a Wildlife Overlay District was approved by the Blaine County Commission last Thursday, Nov. 9.

The ordinance is the last piece of legislation in the final phase of the county's momentous 2025 planning effort, which began almost two years ago amid mounting development pressure. Similar measures designed to reduce development potential in the rural areas of the county and stiffen setbacks along streams and wetlands have already been approved.

"We've looked at other areas like Blaine County around the western United States and almost everywhere we looked at was behind the curve when it comes to identifying wildlife habitat," said Dave Parrish, supervisor of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Magic Valley Region, which includes Blaine County. "We want to be ahead of the curve and save as much wildlife habitat as we can in Blaine County.

"This (ordinance) will make us more proactive in protecting critical areas and help us get a handle on development and smart development."

Parrish noted that the passage of the ordinance came at a critical time given the amount of development pressure facing the county.

"Blaine County is right on the edge right now," Parrish said. "The Wood River Valley is set to boom with development and development in critical wildlife habitat areas. Cove Springs and what's being proposed at Timmerman—those are both critical wildlife areas."

The Cove Springs development, which was introduced to the county's Planning and Zoning Commission last month, would include 338 units on sprawling ranchland about five miles south of Bellevue.

The development Parrish referred to near Timmerman Hill is actually being planned as a new town. Known as Spring Creek, the project is still in the works and no official proposal has been launched. However, it has attracted significant attention in the community.

The County Commission was initially hesitant to adopt the ordinance because the creation of the wildlife district is partially reliant on new map work being completed by Fish and Game. The maps, which will include just about everything a person could ever want to know about wildlife in the county, won't be complete until the end of November.

"This wildlife ordinance was always dependent on Fish and Game (mapping)," Commissioner Tom Bowman said Thursday. "But I see this as getting something on the ground today. Then, when Fish and Game comes in, we'll look at the zoning side of it."

For now, the ordinance will apply to all new subdivisions in the county.

"Prior to the planning or designing of any subdivision, the applicant shall contact Idaho Department of Fish and Game and any other applicable agency or professional ... to identify any classified lands on the subject property," the ordinance states.

There are three types of classified land: elk and mule deer winter habitat; elk and deer migration corridors; and lands that provide habitat for endangered, threatened or "candidate" species.

Applicants will also need to complete conservation plans at their own expense. A plan, which has to be conducted by a wildlife biologist or related expert, must include a list of a development's potential impacts on wildlife and how those impacts will be mitigated.

Commissioner Dennis Wright joked that "we might want to add somewhere in the title (of the ordinance) the employment opportunities" that could be created by the new district.

Finally, subdivisions will also be subject to a set of new design standards.

"All development shall be designed so it does not have a significant adverse impact on wildlife or wildlife habitat or that such significant adverse impacts have been avoided or mitigated to the maximum extent possible," the ordinance states.

Once Fish and Game completes the maps, the county commissioners will revisit the Wildlife Overlay District to institute changes to the zoning ordinance.

Like the other 2025 ordinances, the creation of the wildlife district relied heavily on the county's comprehensive plan.

That plan, adopted in 1994, states that "The county shall encourage and support policies and actions which preserve and promote wildlife (and) enforce review criteria for the evaluation of development which may adversely affect existing wildlife or wildlife habitat."

The comprehensive plan also calls for the county to "maintain existing migration corridors" and to adopt "regulations which restrict development in critical winter range areas."

Mountain Overlay District

On Thursday afternoon, commissioners got a first look at new maps devised by the county's planning staff to simplify and strengthen the already existing Mountain Overlay District.

There was some confusion over whether a map would replace existing language attached to the ordinance or complement it.

"The map will be the guiding document but this language does continue to provide (direction)," Commissioner Sarah Michael said. "It gives me more of a level of comfort."

Michael's view is that the current ordinance may contain some loopholes that would allow inappropriate development within the Mountain Overlay District. The map, she believes, will fill those loopholes.

With time running short Thursday, the commissioners continued their review of the maps to a later date.

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