Friday, October 30, 2009

Public calls for open space at River Run

Sun Valley Co. says 15-acre ‘ecological park’ is adequate

Some Ketchum residents are asking Sun Valley Co. to include a soccer field in its plans for the River Run base area of Bald Mountain. Photo by Mountain Express

Ketchum had its first public hearing Tuesday for Sun Valley Co.'s proposed annexation of 140 acres to build a River Run base village, but the vast majority of concerns weren't centered on the 110-foot-tall hotel that has drawn criticism in the past.

Instead, public concern revolved around Sun Valley Co.'s not leaving a sizeable open space like the bare parcel on Cottonwood Street north of the parking lot where paragliders currently land. That piece of land is part of the 140 acres under discussion and—according to the submitted plans—would be replaced by multi-family housing, most likely three stories tall, the same height as the city apartments a block to the north.

Sun Valley Co. didn't show the Planning and Zoning Commission any building designs for its planned 140-acre River Run base village at Tuesday's public hearing. And none were scheduled to be shown during Wednesday's or Thursday's hearings either. Company representatives said none of the buildings, including the hotel, have been designed, and likely won't be built for 15 to 20 years.

Thursday's P&Z meeting, which took place after press deadline, was expected to end with a recommendation as to whether the land should be annexed into the city.

At Tuesday's meeting, no commissioners or members of the public expressed concern about the hotel core on 19 acres at the base of Bald Mountain. Sun Valley Co. would need a height exception for its proposed 110-foot-tall building.

Doug Brown, executive director of Wood River Economic Partnership, and Carol Waller, executive director of the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau, expressed confidence in Sun Valley Co. and its owners, Earl and Carol Holding, who, Waller said, have a "legacy" of consistently delivering "iconic buildings."

"All I can say is wow, wow, wow," Brown said. "How lucky we are."

Still, many at Tuesday's meeting had something to complain about, and that was a lack of open space. The city received a petition on Wednesday signed by 44 people demanding an open-field park.

Ketchum can legally demand the open space from Sun Valley Co. if it wants to, according to Lisa Horowitz, Ketchum community and economic development director.

"Annexation is a completely open-ended negotiation," she said. "But smart cities aren't going to ask for things that are unreasonable."

Before the public uttered a word of protest at Tuesday's meeting, Becky Zimmerman, a design consultant, described the general placement of residential units, parking garages, the 160-200 room hotel, retail space, a plaza, and a 15-acre forested "ecological park" along the river's wetlands. She said there's no room for a soccer field, baseball field or open-park areas.

"We simply can't accommodate that here or bear the cost of that anywhere," said Zimmerman, president of Design Workshop, the Denver-based resort-planning firm contracted by Sun Valley Co.

But John Kearney, recreation supervisor for the Ketchum Parks and Recreation Department, wasn't satisfied, and neither were many others, including Blaine County Recreation District Executive Director Jim Keating, paragliding enthusiasts, soccer players and several commissioners, who said a few open acres could be had.

At Tuesday's meeting, Kearney argued that Ketchum needs more "active parks" and said River Run is the place for three to six acres of open land for that purpose. The Ketchum comprehensive plan uses the term "active parks" to mean parks where people play sports such as football, Frisbee and soccer, not just sit at picnic tables.

Kearney referred to Atkinson Park—Ketchum's only soccer field—and said it's being used to the "maximum." Many parents at the meeting also made the same argument and urged Sun Valley Co. to leave space for a soccer field.

Kearney said there's no standard to determine that Atkinson Park has reached its capacity.

"But when the maintenance department can't keep up with use, there's good evidence that it's overused," he said.

Overall, the town is 15 acres short of the national standard of 10 acres of parks per 1,000 people, he said.

Commissioner Sam Williams said the town's shortage shouldn't be the "burden" of Sun Valley Co.

Commissioner Michael Doty agreed.

"I can see a need for parks," Doty said. "I don't question that. But it's unfair to hold this developer to a standard the city of Ketchum doesn't hold itself to."

Williams said Sun Valley Co. is doing its "fair share" with its proposed 15-acre ecological park, along the east side of the river south of Serenade Lane, which would restore the natural, wetland habitat and provide an educational nature trail.

Wally Huffman, director of resort development for Sun Valley Co., said the company could take the ecological park out and turn it into a soccer field, but the city can't ask for both.

Williams agreed, saying Ketchum can't demand that the company just give its open land away. He estimated the value of those six acres at about $25 million.

"Why don't we just ask for a $25 million check?" he asked.

However, Commissioner Steve Cook argued that leaving a few acres free of buildings would be mutually beneficial.

"As the area grows, we'll need those kinds of assets," Cook said.

That's especially true for paragliders, who currently use a few acres of the property for their landing zone. Michael Pfau, of the Sun Valley Paragliders Club, described Bald Mountain and the landing zone as "world class" and said the U.S. National Paragliding Championships were held here in 1989 and 2006. He said the competition may return in 2010, but that won't be an option in the future if Sun Valley Co. doesn't leave a couple acres of open space. Pfau said paragliders need "every inch" of the current area to land safely.

Commissioner Cook argued for the open space but said the P&Z can't get "bogged down on details" at the expense of a beneficial project.

Sun Valley Co.'s 140 acres of land are currently governed by the county. Zimmerman said annexing the land into Ketchum would provide about $100,000 of local option taxes per year. Ketchum's local option tax, sometimes called a "tourist tax," is a 2 percent sales tax on lodging and by-the-glass liquor sales, and a 1 percent tax on retail sales and building materials, all put into place with the goal of offsetting the impacts of tourism on city services and infrastructure.

Commissioners had a concern or two of their own about Sun Valley Co.'s plans, including that the hotel core should be set back more than the required 25 feet from the Big Wood River. However, for the commission to come to a decision of recommendation, it needs to decide if concerns can be worked out or if there's no room for compromise.

Jack Bariteau, Hotel Ketchum developer, spoke at the public hearing. He said he's "sympathetic" to the park issue, but the project shouldn't be halted for that alone.

"The solution is somewhere," he said. "We need to weigh the whole picture, not just what the community is asking for [in open space]."

Trevon Milliard:

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