Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Fish & Game asks county to reject Cove Springs

Rare request is first in at least 15 years

Express Staff Writer

For the first time in at least 15 years, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is recommending that a subdivision proposal in Blaine County not be approved due to its potential impacts on wildlife habitat.

Fish and Game recommended denial of Cove Springs, a proposed 338-unit development five miles south of Bellevue, last Thursday night, Feb. 22, during a hearing before the Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission, which is currently reviewing the proposal.

The hearing once again drew a standing-room-only crowd at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey.

"I can't ever remember recommending denial of a subdivision," said David Parrish, supervisor of Fish and Game's Magic Valley region, which includes Blaine County. "We were always able to work out problems with developers."

Prior to becoming supervisor, Parrish served as the region's environmental biologist for several years, beginning in 1992.

"They're just not willing to compromise," Parrish said about the applicants—Steve Beevers, Anna Mathieu, Jan Edelstein, and Cynthia and John Miley. "We're still talking to them. Unfortunately, they are talking back to us with their attorney."

Mike McDonald, a regional Fish and Game environmental biologist, has repeatedly told the applicants and the P&Z that the large development could "significantly impact" wildlife, including habitat vital to elk, mule deer and sage grouse.

"We've had a real consistent message. We haven't wavered," McDonald said Monday morning.

Fish and Game's analysis has also been backed by private wildlife biologists, including Gary Schilling, who was contracted by the county.

"In all probability it will eliminate the sage grouse population that currently exists on the property," Shilling reiterated Thursday night. "You just can't put that many people in an area and not have an impact."

Cove Springs could be capable of supporting more than 1,000 residents.

The developers have countered that the footprint of the development, which would be condensed on 600 acres of the massive 4,630-acre ranch, is outside critical wildlife habitat, migration corridors and winter ranges and is surrounded by a sea of public land. Furthermore, 2,600 acres of the ranch would be permanently protected as wildlife habitat.

Roger Olson, a Fish and Game conservation officer stationed in the Wood River Valley, said if there is ample habitat surrounding the ranch, "why aren't (wildlife) there already?"

Cove Ranch is wedged between Gannett Road to the west and public land to the east. The footprint would be situated about a mile off Gannett Road and fan into a series of small valleys to the east.

Fish and Game wants the development lowered to a strip of agricultural fields adjacent to the road and away from the wildlife-rich hillsides.

Olson told the P&Z that the location of the development is not the only concern, as the impact of such a large number of people and their pets radiating out from the footprint would be "large."

As the focus of the hearing shifted back to water-related issues Thursday night, the applicants remained under the gun.

In January, hydrologist Wendy Pabich released a 14-page report outlining the proposed development's impact on water quality and quantity. Among her concerns are:

· The application for a new groundwater right and disuse of existing surface water right for irrigation appears inconsistent with the intent of Idaho law and the policies of the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

· The calculated water rights claimed by Cove Springs, while recommended by Idaho Department of Water Resources, are not final, are subject to protest and will not be finalized until the Snake River Adjudication process is complete.

· Idaho law protects the right to farm, including provisions in Idaho Code empowering county commissioners to protect an ample supply of water for farmers. The county should be careful not to endorse extraneous water rights (approximately four times higher than crop requirements), particularly when there is already contention between farmers in the southern valley needing water for crops and residential users in the northern valley.

· The proposed mitigation plan, designed to offset proposed new consumptive uses, is not without water-quality implications.

· The use of a membrane bioreactor would provide superior wastewater treatment. However, discharge of wastewater, regardless of treatment technique, poses some environmental threats.

On Thursday, Blaine County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tim Graves said that while the Snake River Basin Adjudication process—a massive undertaking by the Department of Water Resources to review and either uphold or dismiss thousands of water rights in the Snake River basin—is not complete, the review of the development should continue.

As a result, Fritz Haemmerle and Ned Williamson, attorneys representing farmers Tom O'Gara, John Fell Stevenson, Stoney Burke and John Flood, told the county the issue "now will go to court. That's what that means."

James Speck, a water attorney representing the applicants, disregarded the legal threats, saying "it's not gonna be as serious as Mr. Williamson said tonight. There's not going to be a big brouhaha over our water rights."

Speck also disregarded Pabich's concerns, stressing that water quality and quantity would not be impacted.

The P&Z is scheduled to continue the review of Cove Springs March 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey.

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