Friday, February 4, 2011

A river lost, a river found?

The inaction of decades has come home to roost in Ketchum.

The Big Wood River, which was once a playground open to all, is today a virtually private amenity available mostly to wealthy riverside homeowners.

The public is being denied use of most of the stretch of the Big Wood River that runs through Ketchum even though people have a right under state law to access the river by walking its banks up to the high water mark.

Although the city has river-protection ordinances as well, it's failed to enforce them. They limit removal of stream-bank vegetation, stream alterations and permanent structures on riverbanks.

But the city defeated its own good intentions by failing to enforce the ordinances.

The city's enforcement policy—to enforce only when someone complains—has worked to the benefit of property owners who keep the river to themselves.

It's easy to buffalo people looking for nothing more than a summer's stroll, a little splash for the kids or a little fishing.

Lawns at the water's edge, fences that impede passage, and strategically placed lawn chairs strongly signal "Keep Out" and imply that the public is trespassing—even if it's not true.

Combined with the city's failure to clearly designate the points where the public may enter the riverside, the virtual "no trespassing" signs have left a riverside city with very little river at all.

Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commissioner Rich Fabiano, who walked the river through Ketchum from end to end, showed the P&Z photographic evidence of flagrant violations and said he's making it his mission to stop encroachments on the 8.5 miles of stream banks in the city.

Fabiano intends to present the evidence to the City Council and ask for action.

It will be little surprise if the mayor and council members who lent support to the development of the Fourth Street and Town Plaza projects, which were intended to eventually "reconnect" the city with the river, end up stuttering and stammering when asked to enforce river-protection ordinances.

But they should find a way—even if it's difficult and homeowners resist.

The Big Wood River belongs to the public. Closing such a valuable asset to the public benefits no one, especially in a town that makes its living entertaining visitors.

Continuing to ignore the flagrant violations of city ordinances that keep the public out will be bad for business and will send the unmistakable message that disobeying the law is an easy way to win and turn public assets into private ones.

To the winners goes the river.

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