Community December 22, 2008

Smarth Growth

The term “development” has not always had an unsavory connotation. Developers were once generally regarded as beneficial components of a healthy, growing community. They were planners. They concerned themselves with the big picture, devoted weeks to piecing together all the necessary parts, and oversaw each detail in the ultimate transformation of raw land into a workable, livable environment. And though developers stood to be well compensated financially, the satisfaction of being involved in a community’s improvement seemed an equally important incentive.

As communities mature, however, the concern, devotion, and oversight of many developers becomes more concentrated on the purely financial aspect. Other, more popularly shared benefits start to lose traction in the development process. In the glare and immediacy of money generation and job creation, both of which all communities need and new developments invariably promise, this creeping disregard for public well-being can easily be overlooked—or, if not overlooked, skillfully brushed aside with the polished rhetoric that defends private-property rights. Under such circumstances, a mood of disfranchisement can take hold. Eventually, suits get filed, moratoriums are put in place, and development becomes an ugly word.

During the 1990s, as many parts of the country identified troubling patterns of unhealthy imbalances in population movements and trends, an alternative development approach began to be introduced. Widely referred to as “smart growth,” the initiatives typically focus on curtailing sprawl and associated traffic, emphasizing growth in existing communities while saving open spaces, creating healthy living environments, and promoting opportunities for shared long-term prosperity over a broad socio-economic mix. Depending on the area and the circumstances, some of these issues are less problematic than others.

In the Wood River Valley, where as recently as five years ago smart growth was for the most part an unrecognized concept, all are highly problematic. Fortunately, through the efforts of a growing force of active residents, many of these issues are now being properly addressed.

Blaine County Citizens for Smart Growth (CSG) was started in 1997 by a handful of people who were worried that the development process in the Valley was being hijacked by well- connected, well-financed individuals and businesses, to the long-term detriment of the general populace. Concerns ran from the blight of hillside buildings and vista-pinching berms to the overcrowded, unsafe highway and on to the manipulation and degradation of a finite, overburdened water supply. But the first challenge for CSG was to establish credibility with the local and county officials ultimately responsible for the Valley’s build-out. Merely showing up and complaining at Planning and Zoning meetings was not going to cut it.

The desired legitimacy, if not immediate respect, arrived with the addition to the CSG staff of Marc McGregor, an Idahoan with an environmental law degree and years of practice in the municipal-planning arena. McGregor’s quiet but persuasive demeanor quickly became a force in the Valley’s planning processes. His balanced expertise, moreover, was welcome relief for local commissioners and their staffs, who, as a result of the unprecedented population and building increases of the 1980s and ’90s, were inundated with growth issues. McGregor’s participation in the clarification of these issues meant that developers, who were accustomed to being the sole suppliers of “experts,” were now faced with a formidable filter through which to push their plans. The dynamics of Blaine County development haven’t been the same since.

Not surprisingly, the Valley’s building industry viewed the intended leveling of the playing field sought by CSG as “anti,” as opposed to “smart,” growth. And, indeed, CSG’s intercessions initially forced a higher degree of examination on most applications and, in several cases, either delayed or derailed projects that previously might have sailed through the review phase intact.

Successful implementation of smart growth principles requires constant vigilance and patient, hard work. It inevitably causes some disruption, but ideally should not cause polarization. McGregor’s term as CSG counselor was distinguished by his non-antagonistic manner, and even though he returned to northern Idaho in 2001, his early example and the momentum he and the CSG board had established set the tone for the current staff.

Furthermore, by dint of the soundness of its arguments and its tenacious advocacy for the welfare of the community as a whole, CSG has slowly been able to win a broad base of public support (membership is now around 850) and engage thoughtful consideration from development proponents. Recently, for instance, both the developers for the future Valley Club expansion and the Cutters of Idaho property just north of Hailey have come to CSG for consultation at the early stages of their preparations.

In the last several years, CSG has been involved in almost every important development decision in the county. It has actively lobbied for and advised on community housing ordinances; it has helped open up for public discussion and input the redesign of Highway 75; it has continued to argue the case against hillside development and poorly concealed cell towers in high-visibility areas; it has been a steady voice for the preservation of wildlife habitat and open spaces; it has instigated an inquiry into the high levels of nitrates in Carey’s groundwater and the potential contamination emanating from concentrated animal-feeding operations in the area. Much of this has been accomplished through attention to prosaic details.

At the heart of CSG, however, is a more poetic vision. As its vice president, Bill Vanderbilt, puts it, “Twenty years from now, Blaine County will be known as a place that saved itself, that kept its style and charm, while adapting gracefully and intelligently to the changing times and needs of a mountain community and resort.”

Although not all developers have welcomed the CSG mission, a surprising number have. And as growth continues in the Wood River Valley, so will the efforts to keep CSG’s vision alive. In the end, careful and smart land-use planning may be the only way to get what we want and keep what we need.

Bill Lowe has lived in the Wood River Valley since 1983, but has never completely forsaken his native New England sensibilities. The charms of the western mountains, however, continue to do their best to wear away the eastern bristle.

This article appears in the Fall 2004 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.