After a nerve-racking discussion Wednesday, the Ketchum Planning & Zoning Commission opted to indefinitely “table” an application by landowner Teresa Heinz Kerry to restore and protect a 60-foot section of riverbank along the Big Wood River on a property she owns within city limits.
The property is located north of downtown Ketchum, on the west side of state Highway 75 across from the Bigwood Golf Course. During a site visit with the Planning & Zoning Commission Wednesday, Steve Fisher, an aquatic biologist representing Heinz Kerry, said the section of riverbank to be repaired has undergone extensive erosion over the years, resulting in land loss on the part of the homeowner.
“When the house was built in 1988, there were six to eight feet more of bank than there is now,” he said.
At the site visit, Commission Co-Chair Deborah Burns said she was “blown away” by the severity of the erosion.
The restoration application requests permission for Fisher to prevent further erosion of that section of riverbank by adding “barbs” made of wood and rock that will deflect the current to protect the riverbank.
“The barbs will jut upstream and are designed to catch sediment and coax the river away from the bank to slow flows hitting the bank,” Fisher said at a Planning & Zoning Commission meeting Wednesday following the site visit.
The application also requests permission to reshape the bank so it slopes downward more gently toward the river—another defense against erosion—and to incorporate bank-anchoring rocks and flora such as willows to further stabilize the earth.
Though the commissioners agreed the erosion should be retarded for the health of both the river and the property, the site visit yielded some unforeseen discoveries that resulted in legal input from Heinz Kerry’s lawyer at the meeting following the visit.
During the visit, the commissioners learned that Kathy Noble, the property’s manager, had been conducting some minor maintenance on the property within the river’s riparian corridor. That is in violation of the city’s code, which the commissioners said states that vegetation in the riparian zone must not be maintained or disturbed.
Noble had been trimming the grass and pruning several cottonwood trees within the corridor, which according to city code extends 25 feet past the mean high water mark on both sides of the river.
At the site visit, Noble said she trims the grass only once a year, just before the winter.
“Mrs. Heinz [Kerry] is very supportive of ecological issues and wants everything to look natural,” she said.
At the meeting, Noble said that cottonwoods are very fragile, that they blow down easily in the wind and that it would be dangerous not to prune them. She urged the commissioners to “take another look” at the ordinance.
Evan Robertson, legal counsel to the applicant, said at the meeting that he had some “legal thoughts” to contribute. He said it would be inappropriate for the city to use the application to make the client conform with an ordinance that was approved after the house was built.
Robertson maintained that the grass and cottonwoods were located outside of the application’s project area. He said the city would be impeding on the private property rights of the homeowner if it used the submittal of the application and the resulting site visit as a means to force the property owner to conform with the ordinance. According to Robertson, the city should only look at the project area listed in the application when considering whether or not to approve the application.
Ketchum’s city attorney was not present at the meeting to offer legal advice to the city.
“[I’m] sweating,” said Burns. “It’s not in my jurisdiction for me to respond legally to these issues.”
“We’re happy to cooperate with you. My client wants to get along,” Robertson said. “I’m not trying to start a fight here.”
Commissioner Jeff Lamoureux said protection of the riparian corridor is something the city is trying to establish on a “citywide basis.”
“We can’t let one applicant dilute that,” he said.
However, Lamoureux said the discussion should be “tabled” until the commission had a chance to speak with city attorney Stephanie Bonney. Burns agreed, saying she did not feel comfortable proceeding without legal advice.
“We’re not going to continue this discussion to a date certain,” she said. “We’re going to table it for a while.”
Heinz Kerry—known locally as a philanthropist and sometimes political activist—is the wife of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.