Hoping to spur stagnant development south of Ketchum, the Blaine County commissioners took the first step toward relaxing its septic rules Tuesday by initiating the process to remove the central water and sewer requirements in the Community Housing Overlay District.

The requirements are based on a South Central Public Health District policy.

Now, they affect only the South Gateway area east of state Highway 75, which has long been earmarked for affordable, higher-density housing.

Relaxation of the requirements would address a consistent complaint from developers, who have been tied to a local policy requiring that lots not connected to water or sewer infrastructure be at least one acre, to adequately accommodate a septic field capable of dissipating and decontaminating waste.

But last month, a spokesman for the Public Health District told the commissioners that it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, and one acre isn’t a magic number for safety. Much depends on local conditions—which is one reason why the district has a variance process through which property owners can seek dispensation from the policy, according to district Environmental Health and Public Health Preparedness Division Director Craig Paul.

To Paul’s knowledge, it hasn’t been used—though that might change.

The board voted 3-0 to initiate the series of public hearings required to modify county code. The first step could come at the end of this month: Planning and Zoning has tentatively scheduled its first discussion for Feb. 28, according to Blaine County Land Use Deputy Administrator Kathy Grotto.

Grotto’s recommendation was to keep the changes narrow, limited to applications seeking to access the added density available under the Community Housing-Planned Unit Development ordinance. Under that rule, developers can build to a higher density in exchange for constructing affordable, deed-restricted housing.

The McHanville area near St. Luke’s Wood River hospital falls under such a designation, and has seen development fill out the overlay. One key to its success has been water and sewer, fed by Ketchum and Sun Valley’s joint system. Across the highway, no such infrastructure exists.

In her presentation to the board, Grotto suggested replacing the centralized requirements with broader language allowing “any type of system” that regulatory agencies—namely, the South Central Public Health District and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality—can approve. The change would open up the variance process and “contemplate new or different technologies,” Grotto said.

To supplement Idaho’s loose rules around monitoring and monitoring water quality, the commissioners also recommended including testing and maintenance requirements for new systems.

“This is a major change for us, and I support it,” Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said. “We’ve made all these moves to get people to build housing, and we haven’t seen anything done in the South Gateway area. Maybe this brings people in.”

Commissioner Dick Fosbury was supportive, if skeptical. The requirement for deed restrictions, he said, remains another significant sticking point with developers. And then, there’s the question of how to get new units to year-round residents.

“I still don’t see what will happen in the marketplace to deter investors, or short-term rentals,” he said. “They’re going to build empty houses.”

For Greenberg, those stipulations will evolve with the amendment as it moves through public hearings in the coming months.

“I think this is going to be part of a larger discussion,” he said.”

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