Friday, January 1, 2010

South Valley turns another leaf


By TONY EVANS
Express Staff Writer

Hope remains that the Sweetwater development in Woodside will successfully sell units for occupation. Photo by Mountain Express

Heartbreak, financial woes and a glimmer of hope marked 2009 in the southern cities of Blaine County.

As the south valley faced down the lingering effects of a harsh recession in 2009, big real estate developments reeled, as did city coffers from decreasing revenues.

Marijuana legalization was passed by Hailey voters in 2008, but the laws that would have made it a reality were struck down in the courts in 2009. The most heart-wrenching story of the year began on June 30 when Hailey-area native Bowe Bergdahl was abducted by Taliban militants while on U.S. Army duty in Afghanistan. By year's end a new video emerged, showing Bergdahl healthy and alive, though at an unknown date.

Due to the housing and credit crisis, the Hailey City Council had to crack the whip on two of the largest housing developments in the city's history, Old Cutters and Sweetwater, to get them out of default on payments they owed the city as part of their development agreements.

Old Cutters developer John Campbell gave a valuable water right to the city in lieu of cash. Sweetwater developer J. Kevin Adams ponied up for a traffic light and other expenses, but refused to sign off on a potential lawsuit over the city's affordable housing ordinance.

Despite the new agreements, real estate sales are sluggish at best at the end of 2009, a year that may have set a record for the number of home foreclosures.

Apparently bowing to pressure from wildlife advocates, developer Dave Hennessy withdrew his plans to annex environmentally sensitive areas in a proposed annexation of Quigley Canyon, saying he would take his chances with the county instead.

Since then he has been working behind closed doors with city officials to see if his amended plan will pencil out for both entities.

Bellevue struggled with infrastructure improvements in 2009, including the beginning of a long-term upgrade of the city's water lines and sidewalks. Jobs were scarce, as were city funds. Engineers worked to underbid one another to solve the problem of fixing a rock dropped into a municipal well long ago on Chestnut Street.

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Bucking the national trend in the real estate and housing market, developer Jeff Pfaeffle's Strahorn subdivision annexation brought about 62 acres into the city in Slaughterhouse Canyon early in 2009.

Both Hailey and Bellevue had to cut back on salaries, eliminate staff positions or reduce work-week hours to make ends meet in 2009.

In a fall ballot initiative, Hailey extended its local-option tax for 20 years, securing an important source of revenue for the city. Soon afterward, Hailey Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Spinelli resigned after prolonged differences with his executive board.

Hailey passed sustainability ordinances that could soon bring windmills and chicken coops to a town eager for new ideas. The city also passed a "junk ordinance" to clean up the city.

Bellevue wrote its first animal control ordinance in 2009, setting rules for the keeping of all creatures great and small. The Halloween Haunted Forest drew more than 700 people to the woods below town.

Hailey's general fund was down 20 percent (about $1 million) from 2008. Careful planning by the city's staff kept the city in the black by year's end.

Bellevue city staff hours returned to 40 per week after a few months of painful worry.

Longtime Carey Mayor Rick Baird decided to step down in November, saying his hands were full with his duties as manager of Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey.

Baird's time, and that of many others, has been taken up with the airport relocation plan.

"No one wanted to see that happen," said Carey Councilwoman Vonnie Olson. "We all really appreciated everything he has done."

On Christmas Day, a propaganda video of captured soldier Bowe Bergdahl was posted on the Internet. While his fate is still uncertain, many breathed a sigh of relief to see him alive and apparently healthy. The entire nation waits to hear of his safe return to his family near Hailey.

Tony Evans: tevans@mtexpress.com




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