Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A diamond in the rough?

Developers unveil plans for historic Diamond Dragon Ranch

Express Staff Writer

Northeast of the blinking traffic light where state Highway 75 meets U.S. Highway 20 at Timmerman Junction, four small, spring-fed creeks drain one of the Wood River Valley's most significant pieces of undeveloped property.

One by one, Black Slough, Crystal Creek and Spring Creek feed into Willow Creek, which itself flows into the Big Wood River just downstream from Stanton Crossing, where Highway 20 crosses the braided riverbed.

Most of the land drained by these scenic creeks is within a 1,620-acre property many locals know as the Diamond Dragon Ranch. Its ranching history is among the oldest in the area, and its native habitats, ranging from stream banks to wet meadow to upland dry pastures, support numerous species of wildlife.

But like those of many other agricultural lands in the West, the owners of this large slice of the Bellevue Triangle have decided the time is right to subdivide.

So, last Thursday, representatives from locally owned Sun Valley Ranch LLC, the development company that controls the property, presented their plan to the Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission.

In general, the commissioners seemed pleased with the plan's preliminary provisions.

The developers propose to limit their development footprint to just 14 percent, or nearly 250 acres, of the property. The remainder, or about 1,384 acres of the ranch, would be permanently protected as part of a contiguous conservation tract.

In his opening remarks to the P&Z, George Kirk, one of the principles of Sun Valley Ranch LLC, admitted the importance of the ranch.

"It's a large, strategically significant piece of property," he said.

Kirk said that, unlike other properties to the north and to the west in the triangle, the Diamond Dragon Ranch has always been considered better suited for cattle ranching.

"The land is not nearly as capable of being available for crops," he said.

However, the emphasis on ranching has had its drawbacks, Kirk said. He said that over the years, grazing cows have caused a drastic decrease in the amount of streamside vegetation on the four spring creeks, as well as to a general increase in the width of the creeks.

Taken as a whole, Kirk said, that has created a warmer and less desirable habitat far less suitable for fish and other species of wildlife. He said there are a total of about seven to nine miles of degraded spring creek on the property.

"This doesn't just have an aesthetic impact," he said.

Kirk said the owners of the ranch want to see these problems corrected, which is where the development proposal comes in. Using the development portion of the ranch as the economic engine to drive a large-scale restoration project, they would set about repairing the streams and letting overgrazed lands heal, he said.

"Our vision for this property would be to restore it," he said. "Our vision is to restore the balance between environmental, agricultural and residential uses."

Under the developers' plan for the property, which they have renamed the Crystal Creek Ranch, the acreage would be subdivided into 38 residential lots ranging from 3.01 acres to 5.16 acres. Their plan also calls for six affordable lots under the county's inclusionary housing ordinance, ranging in size from 1.02 acres to 10.29 acres.

Because the developers have filed their application under the county's cluster development ordinance, at least 80 percent of the property must be left in an undeveloped state and permanently protected under a conservation easement, Blaine County Regional Planner Jeff Adams said during an interview in early January.

However, in their cluster development application, the developers are asking the county to relax its standards for the minimum distance between each of the development clusters. Under county ordinances, developers can ask for as little as a 400-foot separation between clusters under certain circumstances.

In the case of the Crystal Creek Ranch, the developers say the sensitivity of the large ranch requires keeping the 11 proposed development clusters closer together to avoid impacting as much of the property.

"The scale is important to keep in mind," Kirk said. "We felt that further pushing out into the conservation tract was not a good idea."

The developers do envision keeping the ranch as a working cattle ranch in keeping with its history. However, the number of cattle allowed to graze on the ranch would be kept lower than in the past to fit with the development's conservation intent, Kirk said.

Also protected under the development plan would be a rare heron rookery in a large cottonwood stand near the middle of the property and a bald eagle nesting site north of Highway 20.

Once the P&Z makes a decision on the proposal, the application will be forwarded to the Blaine County Commission for its consideration.

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