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For the week of Feb. 16 through Feb. 22, 2000

Downtown planning conundrum

Express Staff Writer

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The Ketchum City Council’s decision to institute a 120-day emergency ordinance that reduces height and bulk of new buildings in the city’s downtown has triggered tremors of concern, surprise and outrage through the north-valley community.

The city council adopted the measure on Feb. 8 at its regular meeting.

However, the concept of the emergency regulations goes back to late December or early January, Ketchum planning administrator Lisa Horowitz said.

The seed for the ordinance was planted, Horowitz said, when Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission members became distraught by the height and size of buildings under construction and proposed.

Their perception was that "the building pace was extremely rapid in the downtown core, and there appeared to be an alarming number of big buildings…more than usual," Horowitz said.

It was a council member, however, that gave Horowitz direction to draft the ordinance, she said.

A member called Horowitz Thursday afternoon, Feb. 3, saying the council agreed that an emergency ordinance should be adopted, Horowitz said in an interview in her second-floor City Hall office last Friday. She said she called Mayor Guy Coles that evening, and he gave her the go-ahead to draft the ordinance.

In the interview, Horowitz declined to name the council member who requested that an emergency ordinance be drafted. In a subsequent conversation on Tuesday, she said, "I can’t remember."

In individual conversations this week, no member of the Ketchum City Council could recall requesting Horowitz to draft an emergency measure.

Beyond the issue of who requested the ordinance, there is no current evidence to indicate that the city council held a private meeting on the issue, which would violate the state’s opening meeting law.

In an interview, local developer Henry Dean called the council’s action a "preemptive strike" to adopt a direction contained in an as-yet unadopted comprehensive plan.

Ketchum resident Dick Fenton told the Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission on Monday night at a comprehensive plan hearing that the council’s action did the community a disservice and taints the plan’s public input process.

"I think we got off on the wrong foot by adopting interim regulations," he said. "It appears that the council is pre-judging the plan."

All but one of the citizens present agreed with Fenton’s interpretation of the emergency ordinance.

"In my wildest dreams I never would have thought that you would unilaterally down-zone the entire downtown like you have," Ketchum developer Chip Fisher told the commission. "But you’ll make me a wealthy man."

Fisher said the "down-zone" will certainly escalate existing property values, enabling current property owners like himself to charge higher rents.

Among those affected by Fisher’s perception could be small business owners, such as Linda Badell of Classic Realty.

Badell told the commission that if a "down-zone" becomes permanent law, as the proposed comprehensive plan suggests, "You’ll end up with the Guccis, the Starbucks, the people who don’t care what they’re paying," she said.

The city’s proposed comprehensive plan, released late last month, calls for reduced building height in residential and commercial zones. It also calls for downtown buildings to be held to tighter floor area ratios (FARs).

FARs are a means by which planners can calculate a building’s size. To calculate a building’s FAR, its gross square footage is divided by lot size.

In all cases, a larger floor area ratio means a larger building, Horowitz said.

Dean called the council’s action "a knee-jerk reaction to a couple of buildings that appear to be too large."

In an interview, Councilman Randy Hall acknowledged Dean’s charge of a knee-jerk reaction.

"That’s kind of what I had," he said. "I am reacting to the projects going up right now.

"What I’m saying with my vote is that I want to take a pause and go to the community and get some feedback."

However, that feedback will need to be obtained quickly. The emergency ordinance states that the planning and zoning commission "shall submit" recommendations on the proposed comprehensive plan to the city council by April. That’s less than three months from now.

A deadline for the council to consider the plan hasn’t been set. However, some residents fear the time frame set forth by the ordinance is not enough to modify problems that could surface in reviewing the plan.

Before the current incarnation of the comprehensive plan "shall" be turned over to the city council in April, seven meetings are scheduled.

Past Ketchum Mayor Jerry Seiffert told the commission Monday that he chaired nearly 56 meetings with Ketchum residents when working on the 1983 Ketchum comprehensive plan.

Commissioner Rod Sievers asked "Who’s to be the judge?" on whether seven days is enough public comment or not.

In an interview, Councilman David Hutchinson said the city will take as much time as is required to get the comprehensive plan right.

"I’m not a city attorney, but I’ll tell you that if it’s not ready, we’ll just extend it," he said of the April deadline. "I’m certainly not going to cut the process short because the ordinance says we ‘shall.’"

In a letter to the Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission, dated Friday, developer Dean blasted the proposed plan for inconsistencies. In an interview, he said his criticisms apply to the city’s emergency ordinance as well.

"It is inconsistent to mandate housing, parking and business development while at the same time reducing density," he wrote. "Simple economics of development prove that reduced density results in no housing, limited parking and higher rents in business spaces."

Hutchinson, who is also a developer, countered such an argument.

"People need to realize that you can soil your own nest," he told the Idaho Mountain Express. "You can play with the economics, but I think finding a balance between bulk and height will eventually maintain and perpetuate investment values in the long term."

Hutchinson said short-term effects of restricting building bulk and height could reduce values of undeveloped property, but the long-term effect will be a more scenic, desirable and healthy community. In the long run, property values will climb as a result of better planning, he said.

Past Ketchum City Councilwoman Sue Noel said in an interview that the council’s actions constitute "drawbridging," or closing the community’s gates to those who aren’t already here. She said she was outraged to hear of the council’s decision.

"People seem to want [Ketchum] to be a retirement community for the super rich," she said. "The downtown was not made to be built full of little log houses.

"We need to get realistic and start planning to figure out how to accommodate the people who are going to show up on our doorstep, instead of spinning our wheels and wasting time trying to keep them from coming."

Noel said that instead of "down-zoning" the downtown area, the city council should be more permissive than the existing ordinance (not the emergency ordinance) allows.

"Ketchum should be up-zoning to prevent sprawl," she said.

Noel said to watch for similar city council actions in residential areas in the near future.

Another issue of importance that surfaced at the comprehensive plan hearing was the "small town Western feel" that the plan relies heavily upon.

When asked to, planning and zoning commissioners could not define the phrase.

"Which small Western town are you talking about?" Ketchum resident Mickey Garcia asked. "You’re trying to hang on to an imaginary past and ignore the future. You’ve got to face reality. [The plan] is basically a denial of the future."

The Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission will hold another hearing on Ketchum’s downtown on Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m.

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