Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Wright reflects on family, war and county planning

Bellevue native served 10 years on County Commission

Express Staff Writer

Dennis Wright fields a question during the 2004 State of the Cities forum in Sun Valley.

Dennis Wright's family roots in the Wood River Valley date back to 1882.

"My father's family had come from Missouri in 1879 and had gone on to Oregon through southern Idaho," said Wright, who recently retired after serving three terms and 10 years on the Blaine County Commission. "They lived in Baker City and farmed for a couple years."

Wright said the "family story" is that a young child drowned in a nearby irrigation ditch in Baker City and "great grandmother didn't like the area anymore."

"They backtracked to Wood River and, of course, Wood River was booming in those days," Wright said. "Broadford was going really strong there because of the Minnie Moore Mine."

He said his great-grandfather and grandfather both worked as farmers but that "most of the men spent some time in the mines." His grandfather was also a blacksmith "and I know at one time he drove a stage between Broadford and Bellevue."

Like his forefathers, Wright has also donned many hats.

The Bellevue native served in the Peace Corps and the U.S. Army, the latter during the Vietnam War. He owned a business in what was once the highest incorporated city in the United States—Alma, Colo., elevation 10,355 feet—worked in construction and served as mayor of Bellevue in the early 1990s.

"Dennis is very wise. He has a lot of insight into the rest of the world," said Sarah Michael, a Ketchum-area resident who was recently elected to her third term on the Blaine County Commission.

Quiet and seemingly serious, Wright actually has "a great sense of humor," former County Commissioner Len Harlig said.

"The closer to his retirement he got, the more jokes he was telling," said Tom Bowman, who's served on the County Commission since 2004. "When Dennis did talk, you listened and you usually followed his counsel."

While introspective and more prone to listening than talking, Wright didn't lack strong opinions, nor was he afraid to share them.

In 2003, he drafted a resolution opposing the Bush administration's intent to invade Iraq.

The resolution, which was passed by the commission and sent to the president and Congress, argued that there was no proof that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction and that "we find it unlikely that an imminent threat to the United States exists.

"We raise and educate our youth for the purpose of bettering their lives and the world ... and expect our nation's leaders to put them at risk only when there is absolutely no other alternative in the course of protecting our nation's survival," Wright wrote in the resolution.

He added that an invasion and occupation would "have enormous economic ramifications to our national economy" and "increase the hatred that is presently directed toward our nation from billions of Islamic believers around the world."

Wright said the resolution, which drew heavy fire from local media, including the Mountain Express, was "the single thing I'm most proud of."

"I'm not a pacifist," he said. "What we did in Afghanistan was necessary ... The sad part is we extracted forces from there and took off to Iraq."

Wright also has regrets about the way certain local issues played out over the last 10 years, specifically planning for growth in the south county. The county recently passed a series of contentious land-use ordinances, known as the 2025 plan, that were mostly directed toward limiting growth in the sweeping open spaces of the county's southern agricultural hub, an area Wright represented on the commission.

"It's in hindsight but as we look back ... it might have been wise to have anticipated a little better some of the major growth in the south end and to have begun a similar process five or six years before we did," Wright said.

He said his main problem with the 2025 plan is that it won't accomplish what it set out to do: limit sprawl and preserve open space.

Instead, he believes the county's solution to limiting growth in the south county—a transfer of development rights program that would shift development to the northern section of Bellevue Triangle, just south of Bellevue—will create unintended consequences.

"The thing we've done, or what we haven't done yet, is to come up with something other than this (transfer of development rights) theory, which if it comes into fruition will put upwards of 1,000 houses in the Triangle on top of some of the best agricultural land," he said. "It's true (the development) will be closer to Bellevue, but it's still sprawl in the classic sense."

With Blaine County facing enormous growth pressures and running out of options to supply affordable housing, Wright is concerned that the valley is in serious danger of losing its working class.

One possible solution to that increasingly serious problem is Spring Creek, a proposed new town about 12 miles south of Bellevue. Planned for a site located near Timmerman Junction, Spring Creek would include between 2,000 and 3,000 housing units, about 70 percent of which would be entry-level, priced for the average Blaine County worker.

Wright thinks the concept warrants serious consideration.

"It would be a very planned footprint," he said. "It could also address some of the affordability issues we're struggling with, and it could also be a terrific area for a transportation hub."

A proposed new regional airport would be located about six miles south of Spring Creek along state Highway 75.

But others think a new town would detract from the county's already existing cities—especially Bellevue and Carey, which are struggling to get their economic engines running—and contribute to sprawl.

In early December, Wright introduced a resolution to alter Blaine County's comprehensive plan to allow for the creation of special planning areas in the county, specifically for a new town and new airport.

The resolution was rejected by Michael and Bowman. But the commissioners and several citizens agreed that the concept of a new town should not be abandoned, and a regional planning effort should be initiated with all five cities.

And in the end, that's really all that Wright was asking for.

"I think we failed everybody four years ago by not asking enough questions ... in the throes of 9/11. We decided to go in and kick butt," Wright said. "This isn't of the same magnitude ... but nobody ought to be doing anything until we have at least allowed the concept to be studied."

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