Sun Valley Economic Development’s newest proposal to spur middle-income housing hit friction at the Old County Courthouse on Tuesday as both opponents of the plan and the Blaine County commissioners began to dismantle its high-density approach to easing the valley’s housing crunch.

What began as a new “Small Unit Residential” zone accommodating up to 13 size-restricted units per acre ended, in the vision of commission Chairman Jacob Greenberg, as an element of the county’s Planned Unit Development regulatory process translating to between three and four units per acre.

After two hours of discussion—the commissioners’ third hearing on the plan so far—the county effectively sent Sun Valley Economic Development Executive Director Harry Griffith back to the drawing board to scale down the idea.

Tuesday’s discussion itself highlighted the difficulty of doing even that in the unincorporated county, where organized neighbors, a dearth of infrastructure and the rural county’s own guiding principles seem to work against it.

Even when the board did agree this week—on the need to open up more density, for instance—there’s no consensus on how it should look, or whom it should target.

Griffith’s idea is directed at what he calls “middle income” earners—those making between 80 and 150 percent of the area median income. That translates to between $55,000 and $131,000 in Blaine County, according to the most recent federal figures. With units at an average size of less than 1,300 square feet and none exceeding 1,500, he anticipates that developers could deliver homes priced at between $275,000 and $450,000. (In June, the county’s median price for single-family homes, condos, townhouses and duplexes reached $495,000, according to the Sun Valley Board of Realtors.)

“The purpose, effectively, is to develop more … housing for professionals,” Griffith said. “Housing that allows more people to move into the community. Housing that allows people in affordable housing to move up.”

That’s a different demographic than Blaine County has targeted in the past. Most of its efforts have focused on encouraging deed-restricted developments—“community housing,” in county parlance—for low-earning residents. As drafted, SVED’s new zone doesn’t include any deed-restricted obligations.

The change of tack concerned Commissioner Angenie McCleary, who opposed the plan based on what she saw as its detriment to the county’s community housing plan—namely, an overlay district that also opens up 13 units per acre, but requires developers to place income limits on some homes. If builders could see a way to build market-rate units instead, the argument goes, they probably will.

“It’s a small step in the right direction,” she said. “I’m really concerned that this is not going to accomplish the kind of housing we’re looking for. … We need workforce housing. I would have preferred an approach where we looked at improving our Community Housing Overlay. It seems to me that this would undermine it.”

The south gateway area on the east side of state Highway 75 south of Ketchum is a prime target for both the overlay and the proposed zone. There, a group of nearby long-time homeowners known as Citizens for Responsible Development is lobbying the commissioners to exempt the locale pending further study. But per its comprehensive plan, the county is supposed to direct growth toward city boundaries like the south gateway—which, opponents say, presents another problem.

“I think everyone acknowledges the need for more density, and more affordable housing,” former Commissioner Larry Schoen told the board. “But this proposal—I don’t want to say it’s being fast-tracked, but it’s being put ahead of other priorities. It is inconceivable to me that you’d put these high densities at the doorstep of cities without making them party to the discussion. Drop this, and turn your attention to regional planning with our city partners.”

Griffith would love to see a comprehensive conversation, too, he said. But the jurisdictions remain separated—the last regional planning meeting was in December 2018, according to Schoen. Meanwhile, the housing market only tightens.

“It seems to me that there are two messages here—and one of them is to put it in someone else’s backyard,” SVED Board Member Linda Haavik said. “It’s going to take someone who really wants to do this to battle through [county] criteria, and the neighbors to get something done. … And we’ve got to do something.”

Griffith agreed to shaping the plan with county staff towards Greenberg’s concept. And, afterward, the commissioners agreed to hold another hearing.

“This does not answer all our questions about affordable housing,” Greenberg said. “I think just we just need to get more units out there, and this is a way of doing it that might soften the blow.”

Email the writer: mdee@mtexpress.com

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