The approval of a four-lot subdivision on a 10-acre parcel in the Sawtooth Valley—an action that in most places would be routine—has provoked fears among residents there that it could set off a cascade of denser residential development in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.
The application by the Bitton family for their parcel along Fisher Creek Road was approved by Custer County planning staff in early August. Planning Administrator Christy Foster said the application was technically for a “lot split” rather than a “subdivision,” which would require approval by the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
Since the land is within the SNRA, it also falls under the jurisdiction of federal private-property regulations passed in 1974, two years after the national recreation area’s creation. Those regulations state that there shall be “[n]o further reduction in size of residential ownerships except that which will not impair the objectives for which the Sawtooth National Recreation Area was established.”
When they have plans to build on or split their lots, property owners within the SNRA can request that the area ranger “certify” their plans as being consistent with SNRA objectives. The effect of certification is to prohibit condemnation of the lot in the future if an area ranger concludes that dividing it does impair SNRA values. Condemnation is the federal government’s main recourse in those cases.
At the Bitton family’s request, Area Ranger Kirk Flannigan certified their proposed subdivision on Sept. 24. In an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express, Flannigan said he had decided that the proposed action would not impair the values that the SNRA was established to protect. He declined to elaborate, but in a letter to neighbors, he noted that similar development already exists nearby.
The decision was not welcome news to some of those neighboring landowners. Bob Hayes, a co-founder of the Sawtooth Society, which seeks to preserve open space in the SNRA, said neighbors have “serious concerns” about the subdivision, and 20 have formed an organization called Citizens Against SNRA Sprawl to oppose it and any similar plans. Hayes said those concerns relate to the immediate impact on neighboring properties and users of Fisher Creek Road, as well as to the potential precedent set by the decision.
He said subdivisions within the SNRA have been rare, with most being lots divided in two.
“Now that people learn that the Forest Service is in the business of approving subdivisions, they will apply for their own,” he said. “The lure of subdividing a two- or five- or 10-acre parcel is going to prove irresistible.”
Hayes said the value of private parcels in the SNRA has increased substantially since the area’s private land regulations were written in 1974. He said the owner of a five-acre parcel adjacent to the Bitton lot has already told him that he is considering subdividing, too. According to Hayes, 45 new homes could be added along Fisher Creek Road if the remaining open parcels unencumbered by conservation easements there are also subdivided into one-acre lots.
The Bittons divided their property into three one-acre lots and one seven-acre lot. According to deed restrictions placed as part of Custer County’s approval of the lot split, each owner of the new lots must plant at least 12 lodgepole pines or aspen trees between their house and Fisher Creek Road. On the large parcel, five groups of aspen trees must be planted every 80 feet along the western edge of the lot. Homes built on the lots must be between 1,200 and 4,000 square feet.
Jeff Bitton, a co-owner of the parcel, said his family plans to build a home for themselves on the seven-acre lot and sell the three one-acre lots. He said the parcel had been for sale “forever” before his family bought it.
“Obviously, no one was interested in buying it for a 10-acre home site,” he said. “But one-acre home sites people can afford.”
Bitton noted that lots in the SNRA unencumbered by conservation easements can legally be developed.
“It’s not a national park,” he said. “It’s a national recreation area. In the law, people who want to split their lot can do so, with or without the Forest Service’s permission.”
On Tuesday, Citizens Against SNRA Sprawl filed an appeal of Flannigan’s certification decision to acting Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Jim DeMaagd. The appeal may be moot, however. In his Nov. 1 letter, Flannigan told the neighbors that federal law governing the certification decisions was amended in 2013 to provide a right of appeal only for denial or revocation of a certification, but not for an approval.
Hayes said in an interview that the group will follow up to determine whether the process for changing the regulation was followed in accordance with the law.
He said neighbors learned of the subdivision only when “for sale” signs appeared on the new lots.
“In the absence of that we never would have known because the Forest Service process for considering it is absolutely opaque,” he said.
As part of the appeal, Hayes stated that according to records provided by the Forest Service, during the past 22 years, the agency received 12 requests to split properties.
“I was deeply involved with land-use issues and I never heard of any of those subdivisions,” he said in an interview.
Hayes said that regardless of the outcome of the appeal, Citizens Against SNRA Sprawl’s position is that two things should occur: first, that the right of third parties to appeal favorable certification decisions be reinstated and, second, that the Forest Service allow affected landowners and others to attend meetings at which property owners are seeking certification for development plans.
According to Flannigan’s Nov. 1 letter to neighbors, there are 92 conservation and scenic easements on the SNRA. Hayes said about 85 percent of the private land within the SNRA, mostly large agricultural properties, has conservation easements, purchased at a cost of almost $70 million.