The "X" on this map indicates the
approximate location of an 8,500-square-foot home that could be built on
private land within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Map courtesy E.B.
SNRA braces to dispute house size
Easement may not prevent
8,500-square-foot house from being built near highway
By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer
A test of wills appears to be brewing over
the strength of restrictions regulating the size or character of homes in the
Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
Rumblings emanated this spring from the
Sawtooth Valley, 40 miles north of Ketchum, where a Beijing, China, businessman
is moving ahead with plans to build an approximately 8,500-square-foot home
within easy view of Highway 75.
The surrounding Sawtooth National
Recreation Area was set aside by Congress in 1972 to protect the natural, scenic
and pastoral attributes of the 756,000-acre, federally managed area.
Since the SNRA’s designation, the U.S.
Forest Service has obtained 90 conservation easements on Sawtooth Valley and
Stanley Basin properties in an attempt to curb subdivision and discordant
development of private lands. The easements have cost taxpayers roughly $40
million, and the property in question, the Sawtooth Springs Ranch (formerly the
Thousand Springs Ranch), is one of the properties protected under the SNRA’s
conservation easement program.
"We have a disagreement with the landowner
about what the terms of the easement are," said SNRA Area Ranger Sarah Baldwin.
"We’re debating with the landowner about language in the regulation and the
differences in opinion about what that means."
According to Custer County Assessor
Charlotte Porter, Beijing businessman Jon Christianson was issued a building
permit on May 3 to build a log house at the Sawtooth Springs Ranch. The ranch is
nestled beneath a rolling hill about 4 miles south of Obsidian. It is between
Fourth of July Creek and Champion Creek on the east side of Scenic Highway 75.
"I saw plans for it, and it’s huge,"
Porter said, adding that Custer County does not have design review criteria for
According to Janné Joy, the SNRA’s acting
lands program manager, the new home "would certainly be very visible from the
Joy said the easements on the property are
two of the original easements the SNRA obtained in the early- or mid-1970s.
Adjusted for inflation, the two easements are worth $3.5 million. The legal
agreements, which run with the subject property in perpetuity, primarily prevent
subdivision development, but they also require that developers adhere to the
SNRA’s private land regulations.
"The crux of our difference of opinion has
to do with our different interpretations of the private land regulations,"
Baldwin said. "A lot of our discussion has to do with the ranch-type character."
According to the private land regulations,
ranch-type character is defined as "a low profile, rambling, well-proportioned,
rustic appearing, rough-sawn wood or wood and stone structure or group of
structures harmoniously situated within a natural environment."
It is a subjective criterion, pointed out
Sawtooth Society Executive Director Bob Hayes.
"I know that the property changed hands
last winter and that Jon Christianson and his family purchased that ranch,"
Hayes said. "I know that he intends to build a home on it. I don’t know
specifically what he plans to build."
Joy said she, too, is waiting for
"We’re still trying to work with the new
landowners," Joy said. "We try to have a cooperative relationship, and we’re
still trying to pursue that. We’ve been in contact numerous times with the
landowners and their representatives."
Joy said excavation has been done at the
site, primarily on an access road and on several ponds. She said she was not
sure if excavation has occurred on the foundation.
As the Sawtooth Society’s point man, Hayes
is a proponent of the SNRA’s conservation easement program, and he has kept
careful tabs on easement activity in the Sawtooth Valley and Stanley Basin.
"That easement is pretty typical of the
easements that were written in the ‘70s and ‘80s," he said. "Most easements
written early on were written to prevent subdivision of properties and to
reference the private land regulations."
Today the SNRA’s easements, in general,
are tighter than they were.
"They’re also concerned about
architectural styles, so when they buy a conservation easement, they attempt to
get the landowner to agree to develop those properties in line with the Forest
Service’s evolving concerns and standards."
Should SNRA officials determine that
Christianson’s home does not adhere with the terms of the conservation easement,
their options are relatively few. They can try to persuade the landowner to make
changes to his plans, or they can try to condemn the property, Hayes said.
But Joy said the SNRA has not chosen that
route for a long time.
"It’s something we don’t treat lightly,"
she said. "Always we want to work with the landowners. That’s where we are in
"We have a role, and we have a
responsibility to protect the real property interests purchased by the U.S.
government," she said. "So we’re trying to work with the land owner to try to
protect the values of the SNRA."
Joy said dealing with increasingly large
homes in the Sawtooth Valley and Stanley Basin would be one of the ongoing
challenges for the SNRA.
"Our culture in this area has changed in
the 30 years the SNRA has been established, and that creates challenges," she