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For the week of February 21 through 27, 2001

A rift runs through it

Some Silver Creek access in jeopardy due to dispute

Forcing Purdy to participate in another hearing process would give the public a chance to determine whether the Purdy cabins are a "sham" or a "bona fide agricultural business operated by the applicant."

Doug Werth, Blaine County Citizens for Smart Growth

Express Staff Writer

With the "simple click of a padlock," rancher Nick Purdy states he could block access to key sections of the world-famous Silver Creek, an angler’s Mecca that every year attracts thousands of fly-fishermen.

Nick Purdy, Double R Ranch owner

In a letter to the Mountain Express Sunday, Purdy threatened to stop hunters and anglers from "climbing our fences and walking across our property," unless the general public refuses to support opposition to his plans to finish building three guest-ranch cabins on a portion of his property protected from development by a conservation easement.

The first cabin, completed recently, has a floor area of 3,782 square feet and a value of $305,000, according to the Blaine County building department. The large size and what some call "luxury" of the building has caught the attention of conservationists who say it violates the easement agreement and the intention of Blaine County planners to allow Purdy to build small cabins for short-term rental only.

If enough people agree with that view, and Purdy successfully imposes his access restrictions, sportsmen would be required to float into two areas of the stream between the U.S. Highway 20 bridge over Silver Creek, west of Picabo, and the North Picabo Road bridge, rather than walk in as they do now.

Additionally, Purdy threatened to revoke his "gift of the easement" on his 3,500 acres, an action the easement agreement allows for if an "unexpected change of conditions surrounding the property" occurs. A judicial proceeding would be required.

When asked if he thought Purdy could successfully revoke the easement, Silver Creek Preserve director Mike Stevens said, "That’s a good question."

A popular fishing site on Silver Creek at the U.S. Highway 20 could be lost to anglers if Nick Purdy, the property owner, follows through with a threat to withdraw public access.

The causes of Purdy’s wrath are actions taken by the county planning department and by Blaine County Citizens for Smart Growth, a local advocacy group connected with the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies.

Purdy says members of the county planning department fostered their "private agendas" by faxing on Feb. 12 an important public document related to the cabins to the Smart Growth group without being asked to do so. The document listed people to whom the cabin had been rented between September and December. The county requires Purdy to submit the report to show the cabin is an income-generating venture, not a private residence.

"We are so tired of trying to get fair treatment from Blaine County government, that this action of theirs is the final straw that could break our back," Purdy stated.

Smart Growth founder Steve Wolper denied Purdy’s claim that someone at the county voluntarily faxed the document, saying he requested it.

Wolper, in a telephone interview, said his group is not specifically "trying to pick on Nick Purdy or anyone else." Rather, his group wants to fix the county planning process, which it considers "at fault."

If the process worked better, he said, it wouldn’t allow Purdy and others to take advantage of it to the detriment of the public.

Specifically, Wolper and Smart Growth lawyer Doug Werth say that Purdy in several ways violated the 1995 conservation easement agreement he entered into with The Nature Conservancy, which was responsible for preserving much of Silver Creek through easements and land purchases.

The 28-page easement agreement states that its purpose is to preserve the wildlife habitat and open space contained on the 3,500-acre Purdy ranch by permanently restricting development there. In exchange for the restriction, Purdy is entitled to a tax break, though he says his small income and the complexities of tax law mean he realizes no financial benefit.

In 1998, Purdy and The Nature Conservancy mutually agreed to amend the conservation easement to allow additional building construction, a highly unusual move that unleashed a firestorm of criticism from conservationists who had believed such easements were a flat-out prohibition on development.

The amendment allows Purdy to build three 2,500-square-foot "single family homes"—Purdy calls them "cabins"—with attached garages that "may" be leased to "other parties."

In exchange, Purdy agreed to not build homes at two other possible locations on his property and to remove a 500-head cattle feedlot near the bank of Silver Creek and thought to be polluting the stream with the 260 truckloads of manure it produced each season.

Occurring nearly simultaneously with the amendment was Purdy’s application with the county planning department to build the cabins, a process that turned out to be highly contentious with an appeal by Purdy to the board of commissioners.

In November of 1998, the county granted Purdy permission to build three 2,500-square-foot residential structures, each to include a two-car garage. Whether the floor-area of the garage was to be included in the 2,500 square feet is unclear.

Wolper believes Purdy’s construction crews were able to get away with building the nearly 3,800-square-foot cabin because the county’s planning process is not sophisticated enough to prevent it and because the planning department does not have an enforcement officer to police construction.

The cabin’s size and "luxury" is especially an affront, in Wolper’s view, because the cabin is built on land protected by a conservation easement. That fact could tarnish the public’s view of conservation easements in general and hurt The Nature Conservancy’s ability to negotiate them in the future, Wolper said.

Also, Wolper suggested that the new structure may in fact be serving as someone’s long-term second or third residence, rather than as a guest cabin available for short term rental to the general public.

That difference is important, Wolper said, because the cabin’s use as a long-term residence would represent a de facto subdivision of the land, which could make future land development in the area easier.

Purdy’s rental report states that the cabin was rented on four individual nights from September to December by Judie and George Argyros, sometimes along with other guests on the same nights. Another home owned by the Argyroses in Sun Valley was destroyed by fire in October.

The Nature Conservancy and Purdy are currently negotiating "to mitigate a misunderstanding concerning the height" of the cabin. Purdy stated that he has offered as compensation a piece of property adjacent to Silver Creek "worth a six-figure value." Silver Creek director Mike Stevens declined to discuss the negotiations.

Purdy, contacted Monday by cell phone at an Albuquerque restaurant, declined to discuss matters surrounding the cabins in detail. He said the point he wants to make is that the county planning department should not have faxed the rental report, which he however acknowledged is a public document, to Smart Growth—"That’s just the way I feel."

Considering everything, Purdy may find it difficult to get his second and third cabins built.

Largely, that’s because his deadline to acquire a permit to build the second cabin expired on Dec. 31, 1999, and his deadline to acquire a permit for the third cabin expired on Dec. 31, 2000.

Now, he’s asking the county for an extension, something Smart Growth is working hard to prevent because, Wolper said, there’s no legal mechanism for it.

Also, Werth wrote in a five-page, Feb-14 letter to county planner Deborah Vignes, forcing Purdy to participate in another hearing process for re-approval would give the public a chance to determine whether the cabins are a "sham" or a "bona fide agricultural business operated by the applicant."

Tuesday morning, Vignes said she had not yet read the letter.

But Purdy had read it, and he responded by asking in his letter to the Mountain Express whether Smart Growth is simply trying to "cause the controversy" that gives them "visibility and solicits their funding."

"No," Wolper said.

As for the public access across his property that he provides, "it is totally at our pleasure," and if he meets with continued opposition concerning the cabins, it may no longer be "worth the effort" to continue providing the access.

Just what impact that would have on the ease of fishing in the world-famous stream is uncertain. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game provides other access from state-owned land, but Purdy says his access is better.

However, Sun Valley outfitter Bill Mason and Silver Creek Outfitters owner Terry Ring, who consider themselves friends of Purdy and who believe continued healthy business means maintaining that friendship, said the denial of public access at the two sites would be only a minor inconvenience.

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