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It’s time to pay attention to Huntsman Springs

This is an editorial from VARD’s Board President, David Axelrod, to be published Sept 3 and 4th, 3014 in the Teton Valley News and Valley Citizen.

It’s time to pay attention to Huntsman Springs

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David Axelrod

Huntsman Springs, a development larger in area than Driggs itself, is being redesigned with significant changes that will impact this entire community. Many of the proposed changes conflict with design proposals that Huntsman made to get its original approvals. How should Driggs respond to proposed changes that may have harmful impacts on the City? This is a serious question that needs input from the broader community. However, as of right now, almost no public comment whatsoever has been submitted on the redesign of Huntsman Springs.

Did you know that the resort hotel and conference center we all thought were planned next to the county courthouse has been mothballed indefinitely – likely forever –while Huntsman instead pursues a luxury resort at the far north end of the development? The building site plans for this north end hotel resort include a spa, pool, tennis court, fitness center, café, two restaurants, conference facilities, and a plaza containing both a 5,166SF excursion center and approximately 13,500SF of commercial retail. Huntsman’s representatives say the property adjacent to the courthouse is an undesirable location, even though that location was created by Huntsman’s insistence that the new courthouse be located there with the promised hotel.

You only have one opportunity to offer public comment and that is NOW. Give your comments at what may be the final hearing before the Driggs City Council on September 16 at 7:30 pm, or, if you cannot attend, email comments to akoehler@driggsidaho.org

A little history:

When Huntsman Springs first applied to create its 1,347-acre development, it presented a comprehensive residential and recreational plan that would be integrated with the City of Driggs. Huntsman insisted on the current location of the new County Courthouse as one way to connect their development to town. They platted a 300-unit conference hotel and commercial buildings in the empty fields surrounding the freshly-built courthouse. A special downtown zoning district was created just to accommodate their development. Huntsman also promised public pathways, six public parks, and residential improvements along its east boundary with Driggs that would further integrate the development with the City. All of these features were part of the package of promises made by Huntsman to get Driggs’ approval. That was the deal back then.

Now Huntsman wants to take back these benefits without providing meaningful compensation to Driggs in what I fear is an effort to create a private, gated community, walled off from Driggs.

Just last month, with several missing pieces of critical information and without receiving any pre-hearing public comment, the Driggs’ P&Z recommended allowing Huntsman to now focus their hotel resort and their commercial plaza a mile north into the development where it will not provide Driggs with any of the promised and anticipated benefits of integration with the City, revitalization of Driggs’ west side, or stimulation of downtown Driggs. The public notices were vague and did not disclose Huntsman Springs’ proposal to abandon the promised hotel next to the courthouse, or to create the remote commercial plaza, or the changes to public pathways. Huntsman Springs says that it no longer makes economic sense (to Huntsman Springs) to fulfill its original promises. What about the community’s best interests?

And separately, Huntsman is seeking to take back its contribution of public parks and wall off its development from Driggs’ west side with a half-mile stretch of homes 15-feet apart. In exchange, Huntsman first offered Driggs property they had no use for. Fortunately, a wave of public comment in opposition to this proposed deal and a vigorous defense of the city’s interests by the Driggs Parks Committee led to a more equitable trade of cash and a public events plaza at the former Stock Lumber site. This shows that good and fair results are possible when you involve the public in a thorough study of the issues before making hasty decisions.

Bait and switch on Huntsman Springs? Is Driggs getting steamrolled? You make the call and let the City know what you think.

David Axelrod

VARD Board President

Cedron Resident

1 Comment

  1. Joe Burns

    Dear Vard,

    Isn’t ‘Steamrolled’ and ‘Bait and Switch’ a bit harsh? Through no fault of the Huntsman family, Huntsman Springs isn’t working [economically] as originally envisioned and proposed. Business Plan outcomes aren’t guaranteed, and they don’t come with a guarantee of unlimited funding. Thankfully, for the City of Driggs and its people, the Huntsman’s have the determination, optimism, pride, willingness, and means to try again. Any other private developer would have long since filed bankruptcy and rolled out of town leaving the city and its people with nothing but another failed community to grace its ‘scenic corridors’. [River Rim, Saddleback Vistas, Teton Reserve, and how many zombie subdivisions?]

    Try looking at it this way: The homeowners of Huntsman Springs are paying between $7 – ~$12,000 per year in property taxes. Further, it’s reasonable to assume that each spends nearly as much with the many fine, but struggling local merchants. Some may even contribute as much again supporting the also struggling community non-profits. Now imagine a day with a couple hundred Huntsman Springs homeowners, and as many non-resident golf members, and maybe 4x non-residents attending business, professional association, educational, fund raising, etc conferences at Huntsman Springs hotel and conference center, who stop in town for lunch, a piece of Heron Glass from Guchibirds, a jacket from Yostmark, a ski lesson at Targhee, etc, etc. [and merchants pay taxes too]. Imagine such a day, and then imagine a day without Huntsman Springs.

    I can assure you the Huntsman’s aren’t reaping excess profits, nor are they feeling great about how real estate sales are tracking against their original business plan. And it certainly looks plausible that the city and its people may not get exactly what they envisioned either. So while it’s not ideal for any of the stakeholders, we should tone down the rhetoric and work together to find a “best case solution” given the difficult hand both have been dealt. The alternative is bleak.

    Sincerely,

    Joe Burns

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