Seeking to loosen up a tight housing market, the Blaine County commissioners considered a possible new land-use zone Tuesday that would allow denser developments catering to middle-income buyers.

The so-called Small Unit Residential District proposed by Sun Valley Economic Development would allow up to 13 units per acre in the rural county, provided that the average unit size doesn’t exceed 1,300 square feet, and no single unit tops 1,500 square feet.

Building at that scale, developers could deliver homes priced between $275,000 and $450,000, according to Sun Valley Economic Development Executive Director Harry Griffith. This week, the Sun Valley Board of Realtors announced that the county’s median price for single-family homes, condos, townhouses and duplexes reached $495,000 in June.

Griffith says the small, village-style units are affordable to earners making from 80-150 percent of the area median income—between $55,000 and $131,000 in Blaine County, according to the most recent available federal figures.

If approved, property owners could apply for a rezone with the county, and then go through the subdivision and building permit process before breaking ground.

“This is a text amendment to zoning code, not an application for a specific parcel,” Griffith told the commissioners. “It’s not an overlay district. It’s a conceptual change that could be applied in various areas of the county.”

In an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express on Thursday, he added that “if the code amendment passes, it won’t automatically apply to people’s land.”

“This is simply creating a platform that allows a landowner to move in that direction,” he said. “There are still checks and balances. The public has input

—and the application can be rejected.”

The idea itself has already faced its share of rejection. The iteration presented to the commissioners on Tuesday is a simplified version of a “dual density” zoning pitch taking aim at the same market segment, blocked by the board in 2018. And, in April, the county Planning and Zoning Commission recommended that the commissioners deny this one, too, voting 4-1 against the proposal.

In its recommendation, the P&Z cited concerns over potential impacts on water sources and the delivery of county services, including police and fire. Ultimately, the P&Z commissioners decided that the application was not in compliance with the county’s comprehensive plan.

It’ll be up to the county commissioners to make the final call—and they’ll revisit the subject again on Sept. 3.

On Tuesday, they began to examine the feasibility of the proposal, focusing on sewer and traffic. And, they weighed possible income restrictions and residency requirements to keep new units from becoming second homes and short-term rental properties.

They also heard familiar concerns from residents wary of opening up their neighborhoods to high-density housing—namely around Broadway Run south of Ketchum and Buttercup Road north of Hailey.

Donn Wonnell owns land in the South Gateway area off Broadway Run, and works as director of a group called Citizens for Responsible Development. On Tuesday, he criticized the county’s “piecemeal approach to the area” and expressed concerns over water rights and quality, traffic and the proposal’s fit with Blaine County’s values, as represented by its comprehensive plan.

“We don’t know anything about the facts of these particularities,” he said. “It’s the particularities that [Citizens for Responsible Development] is trying to get at. This approach might work elsewhere in the county, but it doesn’t answer the questions we have with South Gateway.”

Kiki Tidwell, an announced commissioner candidate and avowed critic of Sun Valley Economic Development who owns property off Buttercup Road, was more direct in her critique.

“The comprehensive plan has protected property values here for so many years, to disrupt it to this magnitude could be disastrous,” she told the commissioners. “This is insane for anyone who has a home in Blaine County.”

Commissioner Angenie McCleary said she hoped to hear from a broader sampling of the county to better weigh the impact prior to the next meeting. The commissioners, though, did little to tip their hands. County residents can expect them to take a deeper dive into the details in September—and to consider possible constraints on when and where the new zone could be applied.

“These things would fit in with a larger subdivision, where it can blend in,” said Commissioner Jacob Greenberg, who holds a nonvoting ex-officio seat on SVED’s board by virtue of his office. “Or, as a pilot project in an infill area of a city, so people could see how it works. I have concerns here, but I also have hopes.”

No decisions were made this week, but the board was in broad agreement on one thing: the need for housing valleywide.

“Everyone says we need housing, but no one is offering any tangible ideas,” Griffith said Thursday. “There’s no one else bringing solutions. That’s our role. It might not be attractive to everybody, but I’m hopeful the commissioners will keep an open mind.”

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