The owner of Warm Springs Ranch and the city of Ketchum have forged an agreement that gives the city the option to buy approximately 64 acres of the high-profile property along the lower flanks of Bald Mountain for $9 million.
Sun Valley developer Bob Brennan told the Idaho Mountain Express on Friday that after a series of discussions, he and senior staff of the city had agreed on terms for the city to purchase the vast block of open space to be maintained as a “passive park” and natural area. The deal—if completed—would establish as public property some 82 percent of the 78-acre site, which extends around the northern edge of Bald Mountain between town and the Warm Springs base of the ski area. The open-space area—a former golf course—is currently being used as a park popular with dog walkers.
“I think we’re going to get this done,” Brennan said, noting that he would like to complete the deal by the fall. “I’m really excited about this.”
City officials said the “Option to Purchase Agreement” document would be released in advance of a Feb. 23 meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission, at which P&Z members will consider Brennan’s plans to establish 36 single-family home lots on the remaining 14 acres on the northeast side of the property, bordering Warm Springs Road to the north and Warm Springs Creek to the south. The application calls for new roadways for homeowner access and 12 to 20 parking spaces for citizens, who could use a pedestrian bridge to cross the creek and access the 64 acres south of the waterway.
The option to purchase the 64 acres from Brennan for $9 million hinges on approval of his plan to develop the 36 lots on the north side. The city will be allowed six months from when the development agreement for the north side is signed to execute and complete the option to buy the property.
Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw said he is "delighted" that Brennan has given the city the opportunity to protect the land as open space. The funding, he said, could come from a variety of sources.
"We plan to partner with private donors and nonprofits who share our view that this could be a wonderful city park to preserve and protect for generations to come," he said. "I am hopeful that we can raise the funds in order to purchase the land."
Brennan said he wants to see the deal completed and will “work with the city” to that end.
“As long as they’re making substantial progress, I’ll give them needed extensions,” he said.
As part of Brennan’s development application, the Tourist zoning on the planned residential parcel would be downzoned to General Residential-Low Density zoning. All of the previous development entitlements for the parcel—on which one developer had planned to build a 538,000-square-foot hotel—would be entirely voided and replaced with Brennan’s plan.
If the sale is not completed, the zoning of the remainder of the site would remain as Tourist and Recreational Use and Brennan would have the option to submit new applications to develop the eight parcels that compose the 64 acres. Brennan has repeatedly said that is not his priority, but told the Express on Friday that he must keep his options open in order not to lose money. He said the option agreement with the city would be signed after his development agreement for the 14 acres gets final approval.
Brennan purchased Warm Springs Ranch for $13 million last April, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic had created uncertainty about the future of the real estate market. When the market became very active later in the year and values climbed substantially, it became evident that he acquired the ranch property at an “undervalued” price, Brennan said. Now, he said, that initial low price is allowing him to sell the 64 acres to the city—and the public—at another undervalued price. The current market value of the land is likely several times his asking price to the city, he said.
“I just got lucky, and now the benefit of that luck is going to the community,” he said.
Last summer and fall, Brennan entered negotiations to sell the 64-acre block to the Hailey-based Wood River Land Trust. The Land Trust developed detailed plans for its vision for the site, including stream restoration and some events. The price started at $10 million, Brennan said, but he voluntarily reduced it to $9 million. Later, after he learned about details of the planned events, the two sides reached an agreement to purchase the property for $12 million, but the sale did not complete the escrow process, Brennan said.
Brennan has stated he would like to see the Land Trust work with the city to move the project forward and to determine the vision for and appropriate uses of the protected land.
“I believe they could be an integral part of working on this project with the city,” he said.
Scott Boettger, executive director of the Land Trust, said he considers the land “the most important piece of open space in the city of Ketchum” and wants to see it protected, with meaningful public access.
However, Boettger objects to the aspect of Brennan’s application that allows him to develop—or sell—the 64 acres south of Warm Springs Creek if the sale to the city falls through, while no development plan or limits have been put in place.
“I would hate to see something happen at the end,” he said.
Boettger said that for the Land Trust to be involved in fundraising, he would want to see an “iron-clad deal” that preserves the 64 acres as open space and eliminates most development.
“Let’s do it in a way that we can all come together and protect this property,” he said.
Ultimately, the P&Z will make a recommendation about Brennan’s development application to the City Council, which will make a final determination on the plans.