Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thursday could be the day

P&Z scheduled to make decision on Warm Springs resort

Express Staff Writer

After three consecutive days of intensive public hearings last week, the Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission is slated to render its final recommendation on the proposed Warm Springs Ranch Resort application tomorrow, Thursday, June 19.

The commission will continue the deliberations it began last Thursday, after the previous two evenings were filled with an in-depth presentation from the developer, DDRM Greatplace, a visit to the site and nearly four hours of public comment.

Commission members discussed more detailed issues, such as the possible rerouting of Bald Mountain Road and potential construction of access roads in blue avalanche zones.

However, the major obstacle facing the planned unit development and annexation application---the scale and height of the core hotel building---has yet to be broached by city officials.

While public oral comment was closed last Thursday, it will be reopened tomorrow for testimony solely pertaining to the envelope concept introduced by the developer for the first time last Tuesday.

This concept would set maximum height limits for different sections of the core hotel building, providing the developer's lead architect, Mark Philp, a codified framework within which to work.

These heights would set the framework for more concrete details of the project, all of which would be thoroughly examined during the design review process if the current applications gain approval.

Causing the biggest concern for a portion of the public is the requested 93-foot allowable height for the largest, central section of the hotel.

This would allow for either the eight-story Scheme 9 or the seven-story Scheme 10 or a possible new scheme, as hinted at by the developer last week.

Scheme 10, submitted to the city in May, features a core hotel building of approximately 500,000 square-feet, including five floors of guest rooms sitting on top of a two-story parking structure. As well, a new version of the Warm Springs Restaurant would be constructed at the northwest corner of the hotel.

With the top floor removed to make it 9 feet shorter than the previous design, the latest incarnation features a five-floor wing located to the southeast of the main building.

However, according to Nore Winter, a consultant retained by the city, this scheme would actually have a greater impact on the area, as its mass would be further spread out along Warm Springs Creek.

In addition, Winter stated in his May 20 report that the benefit of a reduction in height would be countered by a decrease in the amount of articulation in the building's façade, increasing the perception of the hotel as "one solid mass."

This has renewed interest in Scheme 9, and the commission has the difficult task of weighing the benefits such a large large-scale development is projected to bring the city.

Supporters of the resort, speaking at last week's public hearing, espoused the positive economic impact to be garnered from construction, taxes and retail sales.

In addition to the 121 "hot beds," or short-term rental units made up of tradition guestrooms and condominium suites, the hotel would have 30 fractional units, considered "warm beds," and 35 residences.

Through hotel guests and residents of the planned 25 villas, 18 townhouses and two estate lots, the developers estimated that 15 years after completion the development would garner the city $36.3 million in revenues and $389 million in new retail sales.

However, DDRM CEO Stan Castleton said on Thursday that the start of construction would depend on his ability to receive the necessary financing.

"The market is a mess at the moment, but we have strong equity support" Castleton said last week. "We've been through down cycles before and it always rights itself."

Castleton said that this project would likely have a debt-to-equity ratio of around 50 percent.

"In the best case, we're about two years away," Castleton said, "getting everything in place to begin constructing the resort."

However, despite any difficulties with financing, Castleton said that his team is committed to providing five-star level of service and would work out the correlating standards to put into the development agreement.

With the toughest deliberation yet to come, the commission members spent time on some other issues of concern.

After hearing testimony from the Ketchum Fire and Police department, as well as City Engineer Steven Yearsley, four of the five commissioners indicated that they thought rerouting Bald Mountain Road through the eastern edge of the project would create a safer intersection with Warm Springs Road. Fire Chief Mike Elle said that the slope of the road makes it dangerous for emergency response vehicles, especially during winter.

However, a number of residents stated during Wednesday's public comment that they did not want to drive through the resort to get to their property.

As well, the commission and developer agreed that the resort could use a gate to control access to the small access roads that pass through the city-designated avalanche zone. This would enable the city's emergency services to keep the area closed during dangerous conditions.

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