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Friday, June 25, 2004


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. Phillips

SNRA braces to dispute house size

Easement may not prevent 8,500-square-foot house from being built near highway

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 new homes.

According to Janné Joy, the SNRA’s acting lands program manager, the new home "would certainly be very visible from the road."

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 finalized plans.

"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 this stage.

"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 said.


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