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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of May 22 - 28, 2002

  Opinion Column

What is in our self-interest, after all?

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

The students of The Community School are no doubt benefiting from the increasingly stormy, post-modern civics class of which they are both subject and object.

If nothing else becomes of the Sagewillow campus plan—an elementary school eventually servicing 230 students on 30 acres of donated land in Elkhorn— the students have learned to participate in the public debate and have learned that such debates sometimes take place on several levels, some less apparent than others. They have written pointed letters to the editor and have made their presence known at public meetings. The valley is better for it and will be for the years to come as those young people continue to contribute to the public discourse on other issues. It is seemingly only a by-product of the heated debate, but one that may, in fact, be at the core of the decision before the Sun Valley Planning and Zoning Commission.

As is often the case, technical issues will likely be what is fought over, even though a bigger question looms in the background. But first the technical questions:

The issues most often cited and obviously anticipated by The Community School are traffic, noise and safety.

As to traffic, two intersections are at issue: Morningstar Road at Elkhorn Road and Morningstar at Arrowleaf Road. Traffic engineer Mike Riggs estimated that at the former the average wait is currently 9.7 seconds. By 2013, the completion date of the project’s final phase, the wait would be 10.8. At Arrowleaf the wait would go from 8.5 seconds to 9.4 seconds.

In my view this is a negligible change, a second here and there. Opponents of the project will likely term this an 11 percent increase, which it is, but that’s just word play.

Noise is more of an issue. The Community School hired an independent firm—Yantis Associates in Seattle—to evaluate the present and future noise levels in an effort to quantify the impact of the school. Yantis, in his report, assumed 40 to 45 decibels (dBA) as his baseline ambient noise intensity. He predicted playground noise to be a maximum of 48 dBA, soccer game noise to be 61 dBA and traffic noise to go to 55 dBA—all values were calculated at the point of the nearest neighbor.

There are all sorts of games people, pro and con, can play with these numbers. It should be noted that this is a logarithmic scale. A 5 dBA change represents noise three times as intense; noise 10 dBA greater than the baseline represents a 10 fold increase and a 20 dBA change corresponds to a 100 fold increase. So the changes cited in the study are not trivial. The area will be significantly noisier, at least, at the point of the nearest neighbor.

There are other complications of the noise issue that make for rhetorical quicksand. One is the fact that noise intensity falls off with the distance from the source squared. In other words, the sound dissipates very quickly as one moves away from the source. A second point to consider is not all noises are created equal. We are talking about the noise of children playing and laughing, not idling Harleys.

The final technical issue as stated by the Sun Valley Elkhorn Association is that " … the use will unreasonably diminish the safety and welfare of the community …" It is hard to fathom how an elementary school might pose such a risk. In some letters to the editor, opponents have predicted that the cars lining up to pick up kids will block the entrance to the fire station on Arrowleaf Road. To my mind, that’s a silly argument. Neither the fire department nor the police department would ever let it happen.

There are no doubt other issues swirling below the surface. Are people worried about property values? Perhaps, but the reality is schools, especially relatively costly private schools, generally make a neighborhood more attractive and, hence, valuable.

There might also be a resistance to change, in general. And why not? Neighbors of the Sagewillow property have a pretty nice situation right now—30 acres lie dormant and silent. Even more than 30 acres, actually, because the Dumke family—the family who gifted the property to the school—has several other undeveloped lots adjacent to the proposed school.

Some in the pro school camp have made a point of disparaging the opponents with the pejorative term NIMBY, as if voicing one’s self-interest were a shameful thing. Hardly. It’s the whole premise of democracy and free market economics. Adding up all those self-interests we get the aggregate voice of our community.

But then the greater question becomes: What is in our self-interest? What kind of community do we want to build and maintain?

The opponents to the school plan don’t want a school, but that decision needs to be made in a context. It seems highly unlikely that land will remain essentially dormant. There is a whole spectrum of other long-term possibilities that opponents ought to consider before deciding an elementary school is not in their self-interest. The valley needs a lot of things. In place of a school there could be affordable housing, an animal shelter, 120 town homes, a bus barn, skateboard park, senior center or a commuter parking lot. Something will go in there; a school seems like something relatively innocuous that the entire community benefits from, whether directly or indirectly.

What the Sagewillow neighbors lose is a little quiet. What they gain is a vibrant community filling in from below. A school does require a little accommodation on the part of all of us, not just by the neighbors. But then, someone no doubt accommodated us when we were young. And, who knows, one of those little students might change the world. Stranger things have happened.

A community is no different from a family; the bonds are just stretched a little farther and wider. And as any parent will attest; the noise and commotion of kids can drive you crazy. But then, when all that sound and fury fades for one reason or another, it drives you even crazier.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.