Friday, October 9, 2009

Sun Valley won’t let DeNovo in

City Council denies 12-home development

Express Staff Writer

DeNovo Independence's latest attempt at persuading the city of Sun Valley to allow a 12-home development on the hills above Elkhorn was denied at a special City Council meeting Tuesday afternoon.

But the 2-1 decision as to whether the city should annex 230 acres of land, 93 of which belong to DeNovo, or leave them under the control of Blaine County didn't come easy. Council members Nils Ribi and Dewayne Brisco voted to deny DeNovo's application and Councilwoman Joan Lamb voted to approve it. Councilman Dave Chase was not in attendance due to illness.

Ribi said the addition would only be a "burden" to Sun Valley and should be left in the county's hands, while Lamb argued that houses are going to be built either way.

"My predilection is that we're better off to have control than not to have control," Lamb said. "We don't know what the county could do or want to do over time."

If the city had approved the change, Sun Valley would have entered into a development agreement with DeNovo to create 12 residential lots on 35 acres of the land. Since the council denied DeNovo's request, the property remains within Blaine County and subject to its development rules.

The county's planning department sent an analysis of the 35-acre area to the city and said it would most likely allow only four houses there, one third of what DeNovo wants to build through addition to the city's future land-use map.

The council had a lot to weigh concerning DeNovo's property and people's worries. Brisco said Lamb and Ribi both made valid points but DeNovo had left too many questions unanswered.

"We probably have more unknowns than knowns at this point," he said.

One of the unknowns had to do with the fact that DeNovo doesn't own the majority of the land it wants included in the city. About 137 of the 230 acres belong to the U.S. Forest Service, and the remaining 93 acres of DeNovo-owned property don't even touch the city's eastern boundary. The Forest Service's long strip of 137 acres would have bridged the city and DeNovo's land. The bigger problem is that DeNovo's plans show Independence Creek Road being extended from Sun Valley through Forest Service land to reach the DeNovo property.

Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said that even if the city includes the Forest Service property in its future land use map, it won't control it.

Nelson said DeNovo is currently using a two-track road to access its property under a special-use permit, but that expires in November. To pave and expand that road for DeNovo's development, DeNovo must obtain rights to long-term road use, which requires a separate application and decision made by the Forest Service, Nelson said.

In April, the Sun Valley Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously recommended that the council deny DeNovo's application because of the steep location for houses and road access, which would put residents in danger during wildfires and at risk for avalanches.

DeNovo made changes to its plans to accommodate those concerns and brought three experts specializing in geology and engineering, wildfires and wildlife to explain how risks had been lowered.

In April, DeNovo's plans showed 15 homes on 428 acres to be included in Sun Valley's future land-use map. By Tuesday, that had changed, as had much else. The previous road design had had grades of 12 percent, which Sun Valley Fire Chief Jeff Carnes said was beyond the safe maximum of 10 percent for straight stretches and 7 percent for curves.

DeNovo's new plans showed more switchbacks to make grades just shy of 10 percent. But house placement was still on slopes of 25 percent or more for four of the 12 houses. Sun Valley's hillside ordinance prohibits most development on slopes between 15 and 20 percent grades, and in all cases on slopes of 25 percent or more.

Gary Allen, DeNovo's project counsel, said those four houses would require exceptions to the slope limit.

In the plans, DeNovo also included more wildfire safety procedures, including sprinklers in all the homes, non-flammable building materials, sprinklers beyond properties' edges to keep the ground wet and provision of a fire engine.

"We weren't hearing a comfort level from the fire department," Allen said, "so we saw what could be done."

He said the city would be on the winning side of this trade.

Since buying the property, DeNovo has reclaimed hillsides scarred by mining operations and is in the last step of reseeding repaired lands. The former mining sites aren't part of the area slated for development.

In April, DeNovo developer Ryan Cronk said that regardless of the outcome of the Sun Valley applications, DeNovo was committed to completing the cleanup effort.

"We're not going away," he said.

However, at Tuesday's meeting, Allen said cleanup doesn't come free. He said DeNovo needs some "wealth creation," and is only asking for 12 homes.

"You just don't get one without the other," he said.

When Allen was later asked about the apparently contradictory statements, he said "obviously" there's no legal obligation for the city to accept DeNovo's application because of the cleanup. But he did say that "good faith" was taken up front that it would matter for something. Now that the cleanup is almost complete, he said that it would be finished regardless. And, he said, it benefits DeNovo because property values will increase as a result.

As for the houses, Allen said at the meeting that they wouldn't demand much from the city's infrastructure—they'd draw water from a well and wouldn't be connected to the city's sewer system, and the road could be private if the city doesn't want the responsibility. Public trails would be constructed through the 93 acres of annexed land and beyond to 700 acres of DeNovo property outside the city's boundary. Lastly, Sun Valley would receive $250,000 in impact fees and a projected $900,000 in yearly property taxes, Allen said.

"This property will be low-density, low-profile and high-end development," he said.

Ribi wasn't convinced.

"I see high impact and low value," Ribi said. "It's the wrong thing at this time and any time."

And the city wouldn't be receiving $900,000 in property taxes, he said.

"I think we really need a reality check here to what this will mean to the city," he said.

In an interview, City Administrator Sharon Hammer said the city would receive only about $84,000 in property taxes from all 12 properties, a 16 percent cut of the total property taxes. She said that number was derived by estimating property values of $6 million per finished house and using current tax rates.

She said she doesn't know where DeNovo's estimate of $900,000 came from.

"We didn't see the calculations behind it," she said. "But we didn't come anywhere close to that."

Ribi said that in addition to the property-tax discrepancy, 30 other issues bother him.

He called the steep-graded area a wrong place for development and a contradiction to the comprehensive plan, and said it would burden emergency services.

He cited page I-14 of the city's comprehensive plan: "Among the most notable characteristics of Sun Valley are its high, undeveloped sage and rock-covered hills, its ridgetops, ridgelines, knolls, saddles and summits, and the natural, undeveloped skyline. The city has traditionally respected the intrinsic value of keeping these natural shapes free of any development."

Ribi said that goes to the "heart of this issue."

Most of the Sun Valley citizens in attendance at the special meeting also stuck to their convictions and weren't swayed by DeNovo's compromises.

Four Blaine County residents spoke in favor of the development but were overshadowed by a horde of opposing Sun Valley residents and local officials from the Forest Service and Ketchum Fire Department, who said including the 230 acres as part of the city would be a dangerous undertaking.

One Sun Valley resident said wildfire danger and the steep slope are too much to ignore, but he does appreciate DeNovo's reclaiming contaminated mining land.

Allen said the next step for DeNovo is uncertain, but that it's back to the drawing board.

Trevon Milliard:

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