Blaine County will have to manage lingering issues around housing, public access through private lands and a redundant powerline in 2020, as debates from the past year roll over with the calendar.

The commissioners made big calls on each in 2019, setting up a consequential start to the new decade. Here’s a look at the county’s major storylines from the past 12 months, and a hint at what to look for in the next 12.


Power struggle

In May, the board upheld a decision by the Planning and Zoning Commission to grant Idaho Power a conditional-use permit to build a state-mandated redundant transmission line along state Highway 75, on one pricey condition: the whole thing goes underground.

The decision will trigger the next chapter in the ongoing back-and-forth between Blaine County and Idaho Power, which was likely inevitable from the start: how to cover the nearly $35 million bill the company estimates it will cost above its existing design to entrench the transmission from the Hailey substation to where it is planned to go underground near Elkhorn Road, south of Ketchum.

At issue is Idaho Power’s longstanding plan to build a redundant transmission line near and along state Highway 75 to back up an existing line that runs to the east of the highway. While Idaho Power will pay for the baseline version of the 9-mile route by assessing ratepayers, any costs beyond that would require outside funding.

But burying the line is the “only option” in line with the county’s comprehensive plan, which aims to protect its scenery, according to County Commissioner Jacob Greenberg.

“This is an opportunity for us,” Greenberg said at the time. “If these lines go in right now, you and I will never see the day they go underground. Our children and grandchildren may not, either.”

The bill, though, is at least $5 million more than the county’s entire fiscal 2020 general fund budget. On its own, the county has limited ability to pay it. Options are out there—if the public is on board, according to Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tim Graves, who represents the commissioners.

“It’s going to involve Idaho Power thinking creatively, and the board working with the taxpayers and people along the line to figure out who is going to pony up,” Graves said. “The decision is contingent on funding. If that breaks down, then we’ll have to discuss what’s next.”

Expect those discussions to intensify in the coming months.

“We’ve got a lot of questions,” said County Administrator Derek Voss, “and few answers.”


Public access

The county and Flying Heart Ranch subdivision went to court in September when the commissioners made good on their threat to sue the homeowners association to restore easy access to the Big Wood River north of Hailey.

The case, which dates back to early July, is still moving through 5th District Court. Citing littering and trespassing, the association posted signs over the summer banning parking along Aspen Lakes Drive through the subdivision, promising to tow vehicles that do.

While the road and the land around it are private, the public “shall have access to the roads and river,” according to a plat note written when the subdivision was established in 1979. The county’s complaint contends that the easement includes parking adjacent to the road.

The homeowners association says it doesn’t—and, unless the two sides settle out of court, a judge will decide this year.

The scuffle comes as the commissioners adjudicate a pair of separate questions about public use of two roads, up Lee’s Gulch near Bellevue and Imperial Gulch between Ketchum and Hailey. Those validation hearings call upon more than a century of history—and the record will continue to grow into 2020. Neither has been decided.



A housing hit—and misses

The county’s two-plus-million-dollar commitment to housing at the former site of Blaine Manor brought positive returns in December, when the Idaho Housing and Finance Association picked the project for almost $5.8 million in federal tax-credit financing over 10 years.

That will help ARCH Community Housing Trust build a 30-unit apartment block for seniors—26 affordable—on the fallow lot that once held the county’s skilled-nursing facility off Hailey’s Main Street.

In July, the commissioners doubled down on ARCH’s proposal, donating the entire 2.7-acre lot and $500,000 to an expanded version of the project. In addition to the long-standing plan for senior housing, ARCH expects to build another 30 units of all-ages “family housing” across the property.

Other ideas to stimulate development fell flat, though—namely, multiple pitches from Sun Valley Economic Development to open up more land in the unincorporated county for market-driven middle-income construction. So far, they’ve met heavy resistance from neighbors and even from past commissioners. SVED is expected to come back to the county with more information on a middle-income planned-unit development concept in the next few months.

Meanwhile, the region’s continued economic recovery made hay for homeowners—and hurt for renters and buyers. Home prices continued to rise through 2019, while overall property values topped $10 billion, according to the most recent adjustments from the county Assessor’s Office. Most of those figures trail by a year, but the effects on the local economy were clear in 2019, SVED Outreach Director David Patrie said at the group’s third-quarter member forum in September. While many indicators were strong, Patrie said, there’s work to do in the coming year to keep the economy on sound footing.

“We’ve got to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said at the time. “We’ve got to work on the housing issue. We’ve got to work on the talent-attraction issue. We’ve got to get the right people here, and the right companies here. None of it’s the cart, and none of it’s the horse—we’ve got to do it all.”

Email the writer: mdee@mtexpress.com

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