Friday, April 6, 2007

Regional planning: a broader view to avoid valley chaos

The Wood River Valley is no longer a rustic collection of village-size cities separated by miles and miles of farmlands and dependent on the sporadic, seasonal influx of tourists.

Land sales now are booming. Developers are planning hundreds of housing units. Pressure is on the infrastructure—roads, criminal justice, schools, emergency services, water, waste disposal and an array of other public services—to keep up with and meet the needs of a growing population.

However, decisions made by the valley's governing entities—Blaine County and the cities of Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey, Bellevue and Carey—have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the area.

Absolutely essential to this growing demand to expand is regional planning: the process of bringing together the valley's rule-making entities to review proposals for significant land, housing and light-industrial development, and measure the impact and costs to the overall community.

Some cynics consider "regional planning" the end of local community autonomy.

In reality, regional planning is perfectly illustrated by the search for a new airport site to replace Friedman Memorial Airport. All valley governments as well as dozens of civic groups have been involved in the long, deliberate evaluation of need and finding a suitable site. Had not this process begun, the Wood River Valley might find itself in time without airline service because of the Hailey airport's growing inability to handle larger aircraft safely and in compliance with federal standards.

The expansion and improvement of state Highway 75 is another example of regional planning.

A major challenge now is to avoid uncontrolled sprawl. A hurried calculation shows that developers have applied to build nearly 2,000 new housing units in subdivisions in the Wood River Valley.

If that's not astonishing, consider the tiny, distant community of Carey in southeast Blaine County: Mayor Rick Baird, who's also manager of Friedman Memorial Airport, says there are applications for development of between 1,000 and 2,000 parcels in his community.

Population growth and the accompanying demand for commercial and government services means a demand for more workers, and that translates into a demand for more affordable housing.

Finding a regional solution to affordable housing for service and support employees who fill jobs is just as vital as providing fire and police services or roads. Developing an efficient valleywide transit system for commuting workers is also emerging as a major challenge to regional planning.

Acting now through regional planning to spot and discuss the impact of separate policy actions on the entire county can prevent decisions that create costly, irreversible problems for the future.

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