Back to Home Page

Local Links
Sun Valley Guide
Hemingway in Sun Valley
Real Estate

For the week of Dec. 29, 1999 through Jan. 4, 2000

Grappling with growth in the Wood River Valley

Express Staff Writer

d8com1.jpg (8364 bytes)County commissioners, left to right, Leonard Harlig, Mary Ann Mix and Dennis Wright, face an often daunting challenge of how to balance growth with the county’s lifestyle. (Express photo by Willy Cook)

As we head into the next century, growth and its impact on quality of life confronts the Wood River Valley.

Growth is the sun around which other issues orbit. It can drive Blaine County’s political agenda and shape the valley’s economy.

Growth is an in-your-face issue on Highway 75 during a morning commute.

Growth can shape the learning process in a crowded classroom.

Growth can manifest itself in a new office building or art gallery when your view of the mountains is blocked.

Growth is underscored in the construction of each new home and subdivision.

Common wisdom says growth is inevitable. How the community deals with it is another matter. Critical growth decisions can orchestrate the valley’s lifestyle well into the next millennium.


Blaine County Commissioners Leonard Harlig and Dennis Wright talked with the Idaho Mountain Express about the future of growth in the Wood River Valley.

Commissioner Harlig, who served for eight years on the Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission, is beginning his seventh year as a county commissioner.

"I’ve lived here 26 years and have seen the population grow from about 5,200 to close to 20,000, and from a sprinkling of second and vacation homes to several thousand vacation homes," Harlig said. "So there’s been a lot of change here. Most of it has been growth related.

"So I would have to agree that growth has been an issue for the last 20 years and will continue to be an issue for the future."

In terms of a county build-out study conducted in the Wood River Valley in 1998, Harlig said that if all the land was developed under existing zoning, the Wood River Valley would have the potential for a population of 80,000.

"I don’t believe that every piece of land that’s eligible for development will be built out to its maximum," Harlig said. He pointed out that development will first be limited by available water, sewage treatment capacity and highway size.

"So something less than 80,000," he said. "But that number is a decision for the community to make and they have to figure out how they want to get to whatever number they decide is appropriate.

"The community at some point may have to ask itself how much is enough and what they’re willing to do to stretch out the period of time that growth can take place. Do we get to our build-out in five years or do we get there in 50 years?"

Commissioner Wright was mayor of Bellevue for five years and is beginning his third year as a county commissioner.

"I think that most of the people here, if it was in their power, would probably like to keep the valley approximately the way it is today—today being that which they most recently experienced," Wright said. "Now we all know that’s impossible."

"One of the things that people tend to forget is that every time we pass a bond issue or whatever to make something supposedly better in this area, you’re going to actually exasperate the growth effect because the nicer you make this place you’re going to have more visitors reach the decision that they’re going to move here.

"Sometimes I think that we’re all going to choke on the goodness of this place if we don’t stop trying to make it better," Wright said.

"I’m of the opinion that it’s pretty damn good now. And if you want to know the truth, I would prefer keeping this area a little more secret. I don’t believe in getting on the highest mountain and yelling to the world, ‘Hey, come here.’"

Wright said the application of the term growth is somewhat generic in Blaine County and has different effects in different areas.

"In other words, you can say that growth is good or growth is bad," he said.

"You can talk about growth but in order to understand it you have to get a little specific and connect it to the problems we’re experiencing, like a crowded highway, crowded schools, sprawl such as that being contemplated by the city of Hailey on its south border, the pressure to expand and change the character of the south valley and turn it into more of a residential area instead of the absolute agricultural area that it is today."

Wright said the commute from Bellevue to Ketchum, more than any other issue, allows everyone to experience what real growth is all about.

"If you’re part of that or if you’ve experienced the highway commute," Wright said, "then you know there’s some permanent happenings related to growth in this valley. Traffic is a good indictor of that."

The Idaho Transportation Department’s proposal to expand Highway 75 is based on traffic forecasts and projected growth.

"I think at some point the highway is going to be expanded between principal cities," Harlig said, "so that the population that is here and the visitors that come can get between those areas safely."

As for the future of growth in the Wood River Valley Wright pointed to the annexation of the Eccles property between Hailey and Bellevue currently being considered by the city of Hailey.

"The situation between Hailey and Bellevue, the center part of the valley, will affect growth in the entire county," Wright said. "If Hailey annexes the Eccles property it could accelerate sprawl.

"If the valley chooses to grow in that manner I think that sprawl and that connection between Hailey and Bellevue of solid buildup will bring the same effect that other resort communities in the West have experienced. A lot of those communities have literally lost their identity."

As for dealing with growth, Wright said he believes it can be directed so that some of the harm experienced by communities that already face a similar situation can be avoided in the Wood River Valley.


Ongoing land use planning in the McHanville area and the potential for commercial growth along Highway 75 have many residents in the Wood River Valley concerned about the future in that stretch south of Ketchum.

"The county does have through its comprehensive plan and ordinances a rather rigorous limitation on the ability to develop commercial businesses outside of the city cores," Harlig said. "Commercial business belongs in the cities."

McHanville is an anomaly, Harlig said, because it existed long before zoning laws were established in Blaine County and before there was a comp plan, which led to a number of mixed uses in the area.

"The county is on record as saying that it doesn’t want to see McHanville become a commercial zone that would compete with downtown businesses in either Hailey or Ketchum," Harlig said. "So I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between what the county and Ketchum believe is appropriate there."

However, Harlig said there is going to be a difference between what some McHanville property owners would like to see in the area and what they’re actually going to get.

He suggested that zoning in McHanville include existing uses and others appropriate for the hospital and residences, but that sprawl be limited.

As for quality of life and its connection to growth, Harlig said that quality attracts and holds people in a certain community, and the challenge is to maintain that in the Wood River Valley.

"I don’t want anyone to say that I want to pull up the draw bridge and close the door on growth, because I realize that we need to continue to grow to a certain extent," he said.

"On the other hand, if we’re careless about how that growth comes in and where it goes, it won’t take long for what’s been really a paradise for all of us to first turn into an ordinary place and then into a disaster."

According to Wright, people concerned about growth need to walk the walk and turn words into action. And decision makers, he said, need to "understand how their actions…fit into the big picture."

The big problem with growth, Harlig added, is that it is almost always irreversible.

"Once you get to a certain point you can never return to the paradise you were before," he said.


Back to Front Page
Copyright 1999, 2000 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.