An application to rejigger a plot of land northeast of Smiley Creek will come before the Blaine County Commissioners next week, putting two of the board’s prized principles in conflict: preservation of the Sawtooth Valley’s scenic corridor and the county’s prohibition on hillside building.
Tuesday’s hearing is the latest verse in the growing saga of the Henslee Ranch subdivision, which sits around Pole Creek Road east of state Highway 75 in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
Lot 1 of that subdivision represents some 640 acres that includes part of Pole Creek and borders Valley Road. Despite its size, the property has only one platted building envelope, laid out when the subdivision came online in 2000. That’s what landowners Rolf and Nancy Engh are applying to move, from a secluded hillside to a portion of the flat plain.
The application just seeks to move the lone homesite—not ask for more, according to an unsigned letter sent to the county in May by David Patrie and Garth McClure of Benchmark Associates, a Ketchum-based engineering firm representing the applicants. From their perspective, it’s simple: Move the developable area from a banked hillside, which falls under the county’s restricted Mountain Overlay District, to a more suitable, though more visible, location nearby. (The overlay hadn’t been mapped when the subdivision was platted and the envelope set.) In exchange, the applicant would vacate the larger habitable envelope, and use it to bring a substantial, nonpermited garage into compliance.
To county staff, it’s more complicated. The entire subdivision is encumbered by a scenic easement purchased by the U.S. Forest Service in 1981 to maintain the character of the SNRA. The deal limits design, density, size and allowable uses, and it didn’t come cheap: The Forest Service paid $3.94 million to buy it in 1981, then-acting Area Ranger Barbara Garcia told the board during a separate hearing about the property in 2015. That translates to about $11.13 million today—and Lot 1 represents about a sixth of the land covered by the agreement.
However, Blaine County Code Compliance Officer Kristine Hilt said the easement does not prohibit residential construction.
And the county can’t enforce federal standards—the easement belongs to the federal government. But, Hilt said, county planning restrictions share similar goals.
“The preservation of natural characteristics and aesthetic values is not only a component of the county’s comprehensive plan, but also codified in the county’s subdivision regulations,” she said.
Hilt said the subdivision represents a “core parcel” within the valley’s landscape.
The initial subdivision review considered that when it mapped the property, Hilt said, which is why the building envelope is largely shielded from view.
The proposed site is clearly visible from both Pole Creek and Valley roads, which are classified as county-maintained roads, according to exhibits in the county staff report. (The existing spot is visible from a portion of state Highway 75.)
Land Use’s 29-page report suggests skepticism of the replat, and notes several instances of the nonpermited construction on the site already. Meanwhile, Benchmark has been equally critical toward Land Use staff, suggesting in its May letter that the county was overreaching its jurisdiction, working instead on behalf of Forest Service interests.
“Very little, if any, consideration is given to the relevant Blaine County Comprehensive Plan Goals or to a fair evaluation of its own standards,” Benchmark said of the staff report. “We believe the USFS is attempting to use Blaine County to impose standards and restrictions beyond those granted in the scenic easement. We do not believe the county can legally do this.”
Land Use Director Tom Bergin didn’t take the jabs lying down. On June 13, he responded with a memo of his own.
“This situation has a long history of action and reaction,” Bergin wrote. “While I understand the motivation to undermine the staff report as ‘noise,’ it is not in my opinion an unfair, let alone dishonest, assessment of the circumstances and extensive history on this regulated property.”
The commissioners will take another crack at unwinding all that on Tuesday, Oct. 1, when they meet for a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. in Hailey’s Old County Courthouse.