Friday, November 30, 2007

Road kill and land-use planning

Vanessa Crossgrove Fry is the executive director of Citizens for Smart Growth, based in Hailey.


For years, our community has voiced its concern about the increase in the collisions between wildlife and automobiles along Highway 75, between Hailey and Ketchum. Every fall there are frequent articles in our newspapers and letters from citizens bemoaning the problem.

Recently, the county has placed large electric signs along Highway 75 asking motorists to report sightings of wildlife. Studies and surveys are being conducted. There are signs, orange flags and flashing lights to warn drivers.While it is heartbreaking to drive between Hailey and Ketchum and see the carcasses of dead animals, the situation is also unsafe. At some point, playing dodge ball with a large animal crossing or standing in the highway is going to result in a serious or fatal accident.

Several years ago, large landscaped berms started to invade the Wood River Valley. To preserve views and to protect migrating animals from collisions with vehicles, concerned local citizens, supported by Citizens for Smart Growth, petitioned the county to enact an ordinance to restrict large berms and landscaping. We warned that allowing berms and landscaping to obscure the views of our hillside also made it virtually impossible for a driver to see an animal before it darted across the road.

While proponents argued it was an issue of both aesthetics and safety, opponents argued that it was their property and they had the right to screen it from the highway. A weakened ordinance was passed and inconsistently enforced. Unimaginable amounts of money have been spent constructing berms and planting them with trees that predictably continue to grow, increasing the problem. In many areas, the berms are becoming veritable forests of tress growing together along the highway.

When the highway is expanded, taxpayers will have to pay to remove these berms or, worse, it has been proposed, by the Idaho Transportation Department, that it would be less expensive to construct large concrete walls to retain these berms. These proposed retaining walls would decrease highway safety and increase the potential for animal- vehicle collisions.

Now, with great hand-wringing, we are trying to understand why we have the problem and what can be done about it. Signs, flags, and blinking lights have been placed in some places and there is even a proposal to install electronic sensors coupled to blinking lights to warn motorists when animals are present. The cost of all these studies, signs, lights, or any proposed advanced warning systems, will all be at the taxpayers' expense.

How does this present problem with highway safety and road kill relate to land-use planning? Simply, it is another stark example of the Law of Unintended (though predictable) Consequences.

Vehicles and animals will always be in conflict. Could this problem have been totally avoided? Probably not, but the present situation was anticipated. Clearly, the Blaine County Berm Ordinance was insufficient to mitigate the problem. As a community, we failed to recognize the consequences of this inadequate ordinance.

One can substitute regional planning, preservation of open space, preservation of productive agriculture, community housing, transportation, water conservation, walkable communities, a vigorous local economy, and many other issues for the present issue of highway safety. Like any issue, what we ignore or belittle persists.

The present issue of highway safety emphasizes once again the importance of sound land-use planning. How we, as a community, address these issues depends on the same process—community supported sound land-use planning. Only by looking beyond the present and making hard decisions now, can we come together to avoid the unintended consequences of inaction. We must use this tool to predict and address Blaine County's "growing pains."

The signs, flags and flashing lights along Highway 75 that warn of animals crossing the highway should also be a sad reminder that there are both intended and unintended consequences if we ignore the impacts of growth.

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