Friday, December 31, 2010

Hanging fire, turning earth, and saving water

Year of compromise, creativity and triumph in south valley Valley

Express Staff Writer

The city of Hailey broke ground on its rodeo grounds redevelopment project in July. Photo by Mountain Express

Looking back on the big events of the last year in the southern Wood River Valley, things were not as bad as many had feared, nor as good as we had hoped. It was year of compromise, creativity and triumph.

In spite of the recession, large public works projects moved forward, the valley came together in support of the arts and the Big Wood River, and reasons for hope surfaced once more for captured soldier Bowe Bergdahl.

- Fire department talks lead to study:

A long-awaited meeting between the Hailey Fire Department, Wood River Fire & Rescue and several other emergency response agencies in the south valley, resulted in a $36,000 fire study to research possible consolidation of departments.

The study's preliminary results have shown many possible consolidation scenarios that could save taxpayer money and possibly improve services.

- Hailey charges ahead:

Despite the crash of the housing market and a lingering recession, Hailey moved forward with several major public works projects, thanks in part to a successful grant-writing program at City Hall headed up by Tracy Anderson.

Thanks also to a $3.5 million bond passed by Hailey voters, and an expected matching donation, Hailey's rodeo grounds were razed to make room for a larger, multi-use arena, expanded skatepark and ice rink.

After leading the way in the valley with regard to environmental planning, Hailey also passed a voluntary "green building ordinance" that could become mandatory next year.

The beginnings of a public art program came in the form of approval of a public mural on River Street, and $70,000 in funding for public art that will be integrated into the $7 million rodeo grounds redevelopment.

- Affordable housing repealed:

The Hailey City Council repealed its controversial affordable housing ordinance, but not in time to dodge a lawsuit filed by Sweetwater developer J. Kevin Adams.

Adams sought $2 million in damages for having to provide deed-restricted housing units at his 421-unit development in Woodside, which hit hard times following the housing crash.

At the 11th hour (on Dec. 27), the city came to a settlement with Adams that allowed him to avoid his agreed-upon affordable-housing obligations in exchange for clearing the city's title to a piece of property on River Street that he had given the city.

The property is now slated for a senior rental housing project.

- Bergdahl videos continue:

The plight of captured soldier Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl continued. Two more videos featuring him were posted on the Internet on April 7 and Dec. 7. Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, brought up the possibility of negotiating a prisoner swap with Taliban militants for Bergdahl, but the idea did not gain traction among military leaders, who say all efforts have been made to find him and bring him home.

A promising New York Times story written last week suggested that the Haqqani network of Taliban fighters, who the Times says is holding Bergahl, is losing strength.

"The deadliest group of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan has not conducted a complex large-scale attack in the capital city of Kabul for seven months," the Times reported.

"Its (the Haqqanni network's) momentum (has been) stymied as elite American-led commandos have escalated raids against the militants' bomb makers and logisticians."

Bergdahl, who grew up near Hailey, was captured in Patika province on June 30, 2009.


- Watching the developers:

After withdrawing his plans to annex environmentally sensitive areas in upper Quigley Canyon into the city of Hailey for development, Dave Hennessy submitted plans with the county for developing in those areas, including Dead Man Gulch and areas above Quigley Pond.

City Attorney Ned Williamson said Hennessy is still in negotiations with the city to annex a large portion of the canyon, possibly without his proposed 18-hole golf course. The city and the developer continue to discuss the issue of water rights associated with the proposed annexation, but calls to Hennessy from the Mountain Express for details went unanswered.

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 of Bellevue in Slaughterhouse Canyon early in 2009.

Pfaeffle's similar efforts to annex 20 acres of cow pasture on the east side of Broadford Road to build a 90-unit housing development, known as Colorado Gulch, was rejected by the Hailey City Council. The council was unwilling to approve the annexation, largely because it would require forced annexation of property held by nearby residents of Broadford Road.

It didn't help Pfaeffle's efforts when his partner, Beverley Hills plastic surgeon Grant Stevens, gave the council an ultimatum, saying a trail along the river that has been used for generations would be shut off permanently to the public within two months, unless he and Pfaeffle were allowed to move forward with the development.

"We will apprehend, detain, arrest and prosecute any and all people who trespass [on] and or vandalize our property," Stevens wrote in a letter.

The trail has been wired off since last summer, but no arrests have been reported.

- The Rohe decision:

The selling of water rights upstream in the Wood River Valley became more problematic in May when the Idaho Department of Water Resources issued a landmark ruling, known as the Rohe decision, to enforce minimum streamflow requirements in the Big Wood River.

The Rohe decision subordinates an 1883 water right sold upstream by the Rohe family from the Hiawatha Canal to a 1983 minimum streamflow right held by the Idaho Water Resources Board. Under the ruling, if the flow of the Big Wood River falls below 189 cubic feet per second in Hailey, the water right would become temporarily invalid.

While Bellevue officials and environmentalists cheered the decision, saying it would ensure a healthy riparian habitat for future generations, an objection to the Rohe decision was made by Hailey attorney Fritz Haemmerle.

Haemmerle said it would "hurt the market for water rights" and prepared for an appeal hearing, expecting support from those wanting to shore up water rights with unencumbered water rights transfers, but in October the appeal was dropped.

"Nobody joined the Rohe side," Haemmerle said. "My client didn't feel like carrying the oar by himself for this issue."

- Public art expands:

It was a good year for art in the south valley. Mark Stasz completed a sculpture marking the south entrance to Hailey. Tom Teitge completed a mural on River Street. The city kicked off a public art program that will culminate in a $70,000 artistic contribution from five artists working with architects to incorporate many kinds of public art at the Hailey rodeo grounds.

The rodeo grounds project is scheduled for completion by the Forth of July.

Bellevue's first Open Studios Tour last fall drew about 200 art-curious locals and tourists to "the silver town with a golden heart" to see where Bellevue artists work, and to learn a little about the people behind the art. The self-guided weekend tour featured 11 artists, art galleries and restaurants in a show of local creativity and craft making.

- Wastewater woes:

   Bellevue struggled to pay for a new wastewater treatment facility that went online in 2010. The facility was funded in part with a $6 million sewer bond passed in 2005. An additional $714,000 in city funds was also allocated for it.

Last year, the city was anticipating $1.5 million in federal appropriations to help pay for the new facility, but that fell victim to the changing attitude about earmarks on Capitol Hill. When the federal stimulus funding was issued, the city did not qualify for that money either.

Sewer rates were raised steeply to pay for the new facility, from $19.55 per month a few years ago to $64 per month in 2010.

"This has created quite a bit of consternation in the city right now while people don't have a lot of money," Blanchard said.

To make things worse, the city has seen a steady stream of foreclosures, adding to the $50,000 in unpaid sewer bills.

Tony Evans:

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