Driving the Edge Roads in late fall, the traffic shows the signs of the changing season. The combines completed their harvest, and winter wheat prepares to be covered by the first snowfall. Trailers on the highway move livestock to lower elevations, avoiding the same snowfall that the wheat grower anticipates. Hunters leave pickups and continue their pursuit on four-wheelers or on foot. Late in November 2008, elk will leave tracks in snow only at the higher elevations. Logs leave the forest landings, loaded on trucks destined for sawmill yards to build winter inventory; the mill managers hope the lumber production will find a home by next spring in a depressed housing market.
Taking an autumn moment to look in the rear view mirror at the roads traveled, the seasonal rhythms of resource traffic meet at the intersection of economic and political change. Much has happened in a few short months since Spatial Interest visited three of the Communities on the Edge.
A court decision ruled against the Tamarack Resort's bankruptcy filing, deciding that the owners were not meeting the procedures defined by law. In Judge Patrick Owen's opinion, the partners were not restructuring the finances of the company to resolve debt, but were stalling to obtain credit from new investors. As a result, Tamarack Resort continued down the bumpy development road traveled by the Yellowstone Club (near Big Sky), the Idaho Club (Sandpoint), and Promontory (Park City).
The Douglas Wilson Companies, the court appointed receiver of the resort property, will use a $10 million loan to protect the partially constructed Village Plaza from winter wear, and to prepare the ski area for a Dec. 12th opening. Contractors will not finish the six building complex this year, deferring while management seeks another $70 million to complete construction. Over $40 million in liens have been filed by construction companies and service contractors. The buildings stand vacant, as do hundreds of subdivision lots scattered throughout the side roads of Long Valley, platted during the boom with great expectations.
Blaine County Voters approved the first County Open Space levy in the state of Idaho. A collaborative effort between Trust for Public Land, Wood River Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, and 60 volunteers succeeded with passage of the ballot proposition, receiving approval from 53% of the voters. The levy will finance a Land and Water Conservation Fund, raising $1.7 million per year for two years.
A Blaine County Commission resolution defines the potential uses of the fund which include fee title acquisition, purchase of less than fee interest (conservation and agricultural easements, subsurface rights, contractual rights) and acquisition of water rights. All expenditures must meet the purposes of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. A Levy Advisory Board will recommend to the County Commission priorities for allocation of the funds. Beginning in 2010, the money will be directed to three priority areas:
The Big Wood River and its major tributaries
The Little Wood River, north from the Reservoir to the USFS ownership boundary, and
The "sending area", south of Bellevue, as defined by the Transfer of Development Rights Ordinance (TDR).
Funding a transfer of development rights bank, one of the possible allocations, could stretch the open space dollars. Idaho statute enables local governments to use TDRs as a growth management method. The approach offers financial incentives to private landowners that transfer residential density from a rural sending area to an urban receiving area. The technique involves a real estate transaction structured by a land use policy. An ordinance establishes the zones, and money exchanges hands between the buyer and seller. The markets in Idaho have been slow to develop for counties with a TDR ordinance. The Blaine County Open Space Fund could stimulate the market by using the money to finance the first purchases of development rights. A TDR "bank" would hold the density rights for future sale to landowners in the receiving zones.
Crossing the Divide to Hamilton, votersin Ravalli County revisited the community's divide over land use planning and zoning. A high voter turnout in the November election repealed the County Growth Policy by a margin of 1300 votes (9,671 to 8,367). Montana statutes require a growth policy as the foundation upon which a county builds comprehensive zoning. The voters chose not to manage growth through the regulatory framework of land use planning and zoning.
The 2030 forecast for private land conversion in the Valley is high. The Bitterroot National Forest, adjacent to the Valley, ranks number 1 in the country based on a metric that measures the percent of adjacent private rural land destined for an increase in residential density. Interpreting the voting record of residents in the past two elections, Ravalli County prefers financial incentives over regulation. The $10 million Open Space Fund, approved by voters in the 2006 election, includes growth management as one of the stated objectives. Lacking a local government growth policy, non-governmental organizations like Five Valleys Land Trust and the Bitterroot Regional Land Trust, will continue to shoulder the responsibility to achieve the Valley's open space aspirations.
The financial fall of 2008 and the burst of the real estate bubble abruptly ended the successful real estate marketing of Tamarack Resorts. Million dollar cabins, all presold to buyers in the first three phases, dropped 30% in value by the end of summer. The unfinished Village Plaza suffered the bad timing of tightening credit, and a lender that needed to recapture capital. The bankruptcy filing was not an isolated event, but rather a regional example of the economic downturn affecting each of the communities. Deregulation of loan practices fueled easy credit, with mortgages converted into instruments called structured investment vehicles (SIVs, not SUVs), packaged and sold like bonds. Speculators used easy credit to invest in new residential construction, building a housing inventory that had no home. The traveler's in these financial markets arrived at an economic destination that was on no one's itinerary, least of all developers like the Tamarack owners.
Blaine and Ravalli counties initiated their planning discussions prior to the financial crisis. The two communities have chosen alternative paths to the future, and the recent shortcomings of broader economic policy provide context to speculate on future outcomes. Both counties recognized the need to protect natural resources and working forests, farms and ranches. By way of the ballot, the voters support a public investment in land, water and wildlife resources. Public finance will provide incentives to private landowners in order to invest in natural capital. These assets are the very heart of a community's sense of place, and a cornerstone of local economies.
The two counties differ in policy. Blaine County's voters will make their public investments within a regulatory framework of a comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances. The Levy Advisory Board can rely on these policy documents to define a development capacity of the county. The plans identify potential land uses by location, as well as their relative intensity and size (area). Ravalli County will rely on the market, with no zoning framework to determine capacity. Every private landowner can speculate on the potential development value of their land. The policy differences make an interesting paired experiment that merits monitoring. If we could travel the roads in time to 2030, and review the landscape patterns, would either county fall short of retaining their sense of place and the natural capital that first drew residents to the Communities on the Edge?