Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Cove Springs: Canary in a growth mine?


Vanessa Crossgrove Fry, Elise Lufkin and Josephine Lowe represent Citizens for Smart Growth, a nonprofit organization based in Hailey. Fry is the executive director, Lufkin is the board president, and Lowe is the board vice president.

By VANESSA CROSSGROVE FRY, ELISE LUFKIN and JOSEPHINE LOWE

The ongoing public debate over the application for a Planned Unit Development (PUD) and Cluster Development (CD) at Cove Springs should force our community to step back and examine our vision for Blaine County and the process that enables the vision. Instead, the discussion has been focused on the conflict. Some think it is the most carefully planned subdivision in our history. Others see it as a great threat to our future.

Like the canary in a mine, this application should act as a warning that our process to examine growth is flawed. Too often, the public confuses the Blaine County Comprehensive Plan (BCCP) with a law; the Idaho Supreme Court has ruled that it is not.

A comprehensive plan is a representation of a community's vision. To make that vision reality, a community must enact zoning ordinances. Some of the visions in the BCCP have evolved into ordinances; others have not.

The BCCP iterates important goals. Among those, we seek to prevent "sprawl" (to preserve productive agriculture, open space, rural character, water, wildlife habitat) and provide community housing. These planning goals can conflict, and an application cannot be denied because it fails to satisfy every goal.

Enter Cove Springs; is it possible to meet every goal in our comprehensive plan and still allow development? Probably not. The developers have applied for 307 dwelling units in a walkable community design that preserves the majority of the existing agriculture, uses a state-of-the-art sewage treatment facility, which conserves water by using treated effluent for irrigation. It also meets many other goals in the BCCP.

However, the development would be on the portion of the land farthest from community services and closer to sensitive wildlife habitat and existing agricultural uses. Dueling experts argue about the density, effect on water, wildlife, community services, and about every other aspect of the development. The application clearly does not meet all of the goals in the BCCP.

Opponents argue that the application should be withdrawn and a new application presented under the new 2025 zoning ordinance. If the present application is denied and the owners reapply under 2025, the development would likely move adjacent to an existing subdivision and closer to community services.

However, under 2025 a portion of Cove's property can be used as a Transfer of Development Rights receiving area. This zoning allows for a potential 350--plus units. Whether clustered or scattered along Gannett Road, these units could obscure open space, impact wildlife, and use individual septic systems, none of which would recycle effluent for irrigation. Through transferring TDRs, Cove could protect agricultural lands in the sending areas, but the units would replace productive agricultural land on Cove's property. Many of the desired goals met in the present application would be lost but others would be realized.

Much of the previous discussion ignores the larger issues of regional planning. Proponents minimize impacts while opponents cite impacts based on completion of the development, estimated to be around the year 2027. How does the present application fit into a larger regional plan now and by 2027? Cove Springs aside, what will Carey, Picabo, and Gannett look like by then?

What are the unintended consequences of our present system of examining growth? Does 2025 fully represent our vision? Would we be better served with a more collaborative, science-based and predictable process?

We cannot rely solely on a comprehensive plan to preserve our vision. To direct growth, we must support the hard decisions required to implement zoning ordinances. We cannot demand preservation of open space and productive agriculture and, at the same time, deny support for an effective countywide TDR program, or reject other mechanisms that provide the incentive for property owners to preserve our vision.

Citizens for Smart Growth has been working hard with other local organizations to begin a better community-based collaborative process to examine growth; it is called Whole Communities. In addition, our cities must continue to work with the county and seriously embrace regional planning. As a whole community, we need to make many hard decisions and then work tirelessly to enact them.

Whether you support or oppose Cove Springs, it is a canary telling us our vision and our will to realize that vision have yet to come together.




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