The Blaine County commissioners are weighing a proposal from Sun Valley Economic Development designed to spur small, middle-income housing in the rural county—and, hopefully, break the logjam that has crunched the valley’s residential supply for years. But questions over the plan’s scope—plus objections from landowners and proponents of the existing affordable housing ordinance—will push the debate into next year.

SVED’s latest iteration of the plan—revised after roughly two years and one formal rejection from the county Planning and Zoning Commission—would add a chapter to the county’s planned-unit development ordinance, or PUD, opening up higher density for size-restricted units that it says are affordable on professional salaries. The new version, presented to the board Tuesday, allows owners of lots three acres and up in designated areas to build six to 13 units per acre on half their property. The rest could then be developed to the original zoning.

Under a PUD, landowners would need to submit a detailed design to the county to unlock the bonus. Units couldn’t be larger than 1,500 square feet, with an average size of 1,300 square feet. At that price, in that density, developers can deliver homes at an average price of around $400,000, nearly $100,000 less than the county’s current median price for single-family homes, condos, townhouses and duplexes. That’s affordable to earners making from 80-150 percent of the area median income, according to SVED Executive Director Harry Griffith—between $55,000 and $131,000 in Blaine County, per the most recent available federal figures.

“The demand for middle-income housing—for smaller units, at lower prices, is the future we’re going to continue to face here,” Griffith said. “Our goal is to build a meaningful supply of middle-income housing across Blaine County, in the right places, at the right time. Our belief is that this strikes the proper balance between control for the county and leeway for developers.”

Take a three-acre example zoned one unit per acre, or R-1. A landowner can split it and build 19 units on half the land, rounding down, and one home on the other half—20 in all. Across larger parcels, you’d get a mix: pockets with heavy development and pockets of open land with single-family homes.  The top density averaged across all of it comes out to between six and seven units per acre, depending on how you round and the size of the underlying parcel.

It’s a different approach for SVED, which has tried a range of them since taking up the topic in 2017.

Despite that, the complaints Tuesday echoed past hearings. A common one: that SVED’s idea pits middle-income development against affordable housing for Blaine County’s working class. The proposal doesn’t include the deed restrictions, or low-income requirements, that have governed the county’s approach for decades. Advocates for the existing Community Housing-Planned Unit Development—which opens up density to developers who submit to income restrictions—argue that SVED’s approach would kill the overlay in areas earmarked for affordable projects, like South Gateway on the way into Ketchum.

Landowners from that area representing a group called Citizens for Responsible Development spoke out against the proposal this week. So did three former county commissioners, including Larry Schoen.

Schoen called the idea “a density giveaway with no public benefit,” and no guarantee to deliver long-term solutions. For him, the unincorporated county—which has no central water or sewer, and stretched services—is the wrong region to solve the problem in the first place.

“We’re talking about urban-core levels of density out in these areas,” he said. “This type of development belongs in areas of city impact, and in the towns.”

Former Commissioner Len Harlig shared concerns, too—specifically, whether a market-driven approach would do enough to shield new developments from speculators and short-term rentals.

“After the last recession, people snapped up houses,” he said. “They’ve stayed in private hands—they haven’t come back into the mix, and we’re seeing the effects of that now. If a speculator comes along and buys up one of these developments, they’ve effectively co-opted a whole sector of the market. … Then, the affordability is gone.”

In Idaho, the county can’t regulate short-term rentals, but a newly minted homeowners association can, as long as it’s in the bylaws from the beginning, according to SVED board member Linda Haavik. And, SVED believes that the low footprint and high density will keep prices down without built-in controls.

For Commissioner Jacob Greenberg, SVED’s plan might crowd out affordable projects, and it might not. Either way, the deed-restricted approach hasn’t worked so far, he said.

“I haven’t seen anything in that area the way things are,” he said. “We tried to do something, and we got sued. I think this is a good compromise.”

The other commissioners were less sure. They plan to schedule another hearing sometime in the coming months, before deciding whether to submit the ordinance to P&Z.

“What’s worked for the last 45 years is not going to work for the next 45 years,” Griffith said. “We need to think differently. We need to change.”

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