Friday, May 21, 2010

County’s hillside rules scrutinized

Proposal would streamline process for appealing inclusion in sloped areas

Express Staff Writer

Views taken from the hillside in the foreground show a large flat area stretching toward St. Luke’s Wood Rive Medical Center—its roof visible where the grassy area ends—that some Blaine County officials believe is inappropriately mapped in the county’s Mountain Overlay District. County officials have just started to draft a revised set of rules to guide how landowners can appeal the inclusion of their lands inside the protected hillside area. Photo by Willy Cook

Former County Commissioner Leonard Harlig worries that proposed rules guiding how landowners can appeal the inclusion of their lands within the county's Mountain Overlay District could have unforeseen consequences.

"As an original drafter of that legislation, I'm a little apprehensive," he said.

Back when Blaine County officials approved a comprehensive ordinance in 1991 to keep local hillsides open and uncluttered, the preservation of scenic views was part of their rationale.

But other concerns—such as ensuring that development doesn't occur on hilly areas that emergency responders have a hard time accessing and where construction of water and sewer infrastructure would be difficult—also guided their decision. Green-lighting development on hard-to-access hillside lands would put the county in a difficult position when it came to providing necessary public services.

"There's a lot of very good reasons not to build in the hillsides beyond aesthetics," Harlig said in an interview.

Harlig was a member of the county's Planning and Zoning Commission when the hillside ordinance was approved.

To this day, the county's vaunted hillside ordinance is considered one of the primary reasons the area still retains its uncluttered sense of place. Few areas in the West have protected their hillsides as completely as Blaine County.

The hillside ordinance strictly regulates development on lands exceeding 25 percent slope angle. Within the state Highway 75 scenic corridor—designated as lands visible from the highway north of Glendale Road near Bellevue—the ordinance strictly regulates development on lands exceeding 15 percent slope angle.

"It's one of the hallmarks of our community," Harlig said.

But some, including Harlig, are now expressing concern with the county's consideration of a more established set of rules that would guide how landowners can appeal the inclusion of their lands inside the protected hillside area. The Blaine County Commission recently voted to have county planning staff begin drafting rules that would establish criteria for landowner appeals.

At issue are certain types of land that many believe have been inappropriately mapped inside the Mountain Overlay District. Generally, they're flat areas separated from the main Wood River Valley floor by features such as short, steep hillsides.

A perfect example is the flat side canyon perpendicular to the Big Wood River that sits on a short knoll just above St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center south of Ketchum. For the moment, that bench area—which extends west to where the canyon narrows at the entrance to the Cold Springs Trail—is included in the Mountain Overlay District.

At least two county commissioners—Larry Schoen and Tom Bowman—have indicated they believe the area doesn't belong in the hillside district. Recently, the commissioners considered an application from county planning staff to remove that area from the hillside district.

But rather than vote on the application—which was recommended for denial by the Planning and Zoning Commission—the commissioners tabled it. They did this to give planning staff time to draft the rules guiding a hillside appeals process.

On Wednesday, County Commissioner Larry Schoen said he realizes why some local residents are concerned about possible tweaks to the hillside rules. Schoen said he's received many phone calls and e-mails from members of the public concerned by the proposal.

"It's bedrock for all of us," he said of the hillside protections.

Schoen said the commission in no way intends to weaken the hillside ordinance. He said the idea is not to allow just any flat land to be taken out of the hillside district. The original ordinance rightly included areas like secluded benches high up on hillsides in the protected area, and there they'll remain, he said.

"We stand by it and the protections it affords," he said.

According to Schoen, changes to the ordinance in 2007 that switched from a text-based description of the hillside area to an actual mapped area incorrectly included some flat lands. That's a position shared by County Commissioner Tom Bowman.

Commissioner Angenie McCleary, while not as committal on which lands are inappropriately mapped, has indicated a willingness to look at changes to how landowners can appeal the inclusion of their land in the district.

Thus far, no timeline has been set for how quickly the revised appeal process will be considered by county officials. The rules being drafted would require landowners to submit the appeal themselves. The county would not be initiating an effort to identify which lands belong in the district.

In the end, it would be up to the commissioners to approve or deny the hillside appeals.

According to Harlig, it's possible that some limited development could be appropriate on lands such as the bench above the hospital. But for that to happen, he said, developers should have to prove they can provide adequate access for emergency responders and other services. He said issues such as the greater risk of wildfires from development in the wildland-urban interface also need to be addressed.

But Harlig said there's no doubt that some areas included in the hillside district do not belong there.

"Correcting it is the right thing to do," he said.

Harlig hopes county officials will proceed cautiously when drafting the revisions. He said they need to make sure the rules have strict limits on which types of lands can be removed from the hillside district. Failing that, he said, the county could end up like so many other communities that have allowed too much hillside development.

"I would hate to see us turn ourselves into a Park City," he said. "I don't think that's what the County Commission has in mind."

Jason Kauffman:

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