Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ketchum Market still has a chance

City narrowly passes first reading of zoning change

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall was forced to do something Monday never called for in his five years in office—break a tie.

The City Council was stuck in a 2-2 vote over acknowledgement of the first reading for a proposed zoning change that would allow grocery stores in the city's largest light-industrial area.

The first reading isn't a definitive choice either way for the amendment, but means the city will continue considering it, with approval possible after two more readings. The council can still back out or deny the zoning amendment at anytime. The fact that half the council—Nina Jonas and Baird Gourlay—are strongly opposed at the outset lays testament to the strong feelings on the issue.

"I don't think it should come as a surprise that we're split up here, same as you're split down there," said Hall, who voted to acknowledge the first reading. "I do feel this is worthy of moving to the next level."

The Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood was used for the meeting because the last one on the topic attracted more people than City Hall can hold. Even with the bigger venue, every seat was filled and then some.

The city had already received 119 public comments on the issue, increased by a couple of dozen more in passionate testimony heard Monday. Public sentiment remains split.

Many of those in favor of the change argue that the city shouldn't try to control the "free market" and decide if the town can support another grocery store, or protect the long-standing Atkinsons' Market from competition.

"Stop trying to control everything," Ketchum resident Mickey Garcia said. "The marketplace is going to tell the tale—consumer demand."

Proponents have said they want a bigger store with ample parking, while others argue "convenience" isn't worth the risk of creating a satellite retail core and destroying the charm of downtown. Marybeth Flower pointed out that locals donated $440,000 in two months to construct a downtown square, wanting to bring foot traffic and vibrancy to the center of town. She said the city is now considering allowing grocery stores to the north, taking people from downtown.

"People voted with their dollars to see a strong downtown core," Flower said. "I'm really surprised we're even talking about this after all the work we put into the downtown core."

The city didn't come up with the zoning amendment—Ketchum Market developer Valmark suggested it. Without it, Ketchum Market—planned for the former Stock Building Supply site on Warm Springs Road—couldn't be built.

The zoning change wouldn't automatically permit grocery stores in the light-industrial zone, as is the case in the community core. Stores would be allowed conditionally, meaning the city can place additional "conditions" above the norm, and permit or deny grocery stores on a case-by-case basis.

The proposed amendment states that to be considered for conditional approval, the store must meet the city's definition of a grocery store—a definition that the council considered Monday but unanimously decided to table until the amendment is handled. The council said that if it decides grocery stores aren't allowed in the LI, a "grocery store" definition wouldn't be needed.

"We're kind of putting the cart before the horse," Gourlay said.

The grocery limitation is meant to exclude other retail business from creeping into the light-industrial area. The amendment states that a store must also employ at least 25 full-time-equivalent employees and provide affordable housing equal to 20 percent of the gross floor area.

Councilmen Larry Helzel and Curtis Kemp voted for the amendment. Helzel's self-stated reasons for supporting it often paralleled the opinions of those in the audience on the same side of the fence, which could be said for every councilmember. Helzel said it's not government's place to decide if three grocery stores is too much or give the Atkinson family "special treatment" for being the town's key grocer for decades and often donating to town groups, as others advocated Monday.

"That's how free markets operate," Helzel said. "This whole matter comes down to change and our attitude toward change. I say that the time to embrace change is now."

However, Jonas and Gourlay argued that this change wouldn't be for the better but a "mistake," as Gourlay put it, "sacrificing" the city's work to create a distinct downtown core and industrial area. However, Gourlay said he'd be willing to consider the amendment if a study were done outlining the best route for developing the LI.

Trevon Milliard:

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