An upscale development divides a town

 

DONNELLY, Idaho - Dave Dewey used to lead a peaceful life in this bucolic town.

The 28-year-old Valley County resident lived a typical Joe Citizen existence, working as a concrete contractor, raising a family, and serving on the county planning and zoning commission.

Then came WestRock.

Touted as a world-class resort plan, the sleek "WestRock Resort at Lake Cascade" development proposal had the political effect of a whale splashing the lake's mirror surface on a windless summer day.

Plans for the resort, which would be located 90 miles north of Boise, were unveiled two years ago. By last winter, routine, once-a-month Valley County planning and zoning meetings sometimes turned into marathons starting at 7 p.m. and lasting until 2 a.m. Meetings began to be conducted as often as three times a month.

Dewey and the other volunteer P&Z members found themselves immersed in the WestRock project, a successor to a resort proposal called Valbois, which went bankrupt in the mid-1990s (HCN, 11/29/93).

Spearheaded locally by Donald K. Weilmunster, a longtime Valley County entrepreneur, the WestRock project would encompass 3,603 acres of state and private land at West Mountain, eight miles southwest of Donnelly. Promoting its potential alpine ski slopes, 18-hole golf course, 850,000 square feet of commercial/retail space, and 3,460 luxury housing and hotel units, developers say WestRock requires startup capital of $271 million.

After observing a similar resort above Telluride, Colo., however, Dewey and three other members of the five-member Valley County P&Z concluded that development there had too many negative effects on the town. On Jan. 28, they voted 4-1 against conceptual approval for WestRock.

End of story, right? Nope. Dewey then began getting telephone calls at odd hours. While not death threats, the "four or five" angry phone calls directed at him about the WestRock issue were anonymous and pointed. At least once, he says, a caller indicated that Dewey "should be run out of town."

When the P&Z's demanding schedule was joined with the pressure of overly zealous opposition within the community, Dewey decided to resign.

He says the WestRock issue had become too emotionally charged. "It's a big, major change if it goes in this county," Dewey said. "It puts a lot of pressure on a guy. I don't need the pressure. I'm loving life."

"It has gotten nasty"

About the same time Dewey resigned almost a year ago, pro-WestRock business forces in the Cascade area organized a successful petition drive to prevent the reappointment of Lynette Adams, whose term was expiring. Adams had also voted against conceptual approval for WestRock. After the Valley County Commissioners replaced Dewey and Adams on the P&Z, a new vote was taken in early March. Five weeks after it was turned down, WestRock gained conceptual approval on a 3-2 vote.

"It has gotten nasty, and nasty things were said about people and they were just trying to do their job," said Lincoln Hart, a Lake Fork blacksmith and member of Citizens for Valley County, a local activist group.

Ultimately, billions of dollars and the long-term future of Valley County, population 8,000, are at stake. Hart and others fear an approved WestRock would eventually double the county's population, lead to gargantuan taxpayer-funded infrastructure costs, and leave the citizens to pick up the tab if it flounders.

Judy Anderson, a board member for Citizens for Valley County, makes it clear that she isn't speaking for the group. But Anderson, a part-time high school drama and humanities teacher, contends WestRock uses intimidation "to get its way."

"The intimidation can be as simple as people turning their heads and not looking at you as you walk down the street; people who would normally talk to you, but will not, because you have questions about the resort," Anderson said. "It can be as simple as that, or it can be as strange as anonymous, threatening phone calls."

WestRock boosterism in the town of Donnelly includes six of the company's bumper stickers on the wall behind the bar at Vigilantes and another sticker by the back door exit. Across State Highway 55 at The Club Restaurant and Lounge, there's another WestRock sticker pasted on the wall inside. WestRock public relations packets are available at other area businesses.

Weilmunster says that a majority of people in Valley County supports the project.

"We feel we have a large percentage in favor of it," he says. "I think we could put it up for a vote and win it hands down. That's my opinion."

Weilmunster and the rest of the WestRock development group would like to have bulldozers on the site as quickly as possible. WestRock is striving to obtain final local and state government project approval in time to push marketing efforts during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, six hours south of Boise.

Still, state officials and others are carefully scrutinizing the WestRock plan. They're not sure it's environmentally sound.

At the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality office at Cascade, Tonya Dombrowski says residential runoff is already a major problem at Lake Cascade. Since 1994, some $10 million has been spent on lake cleanup efforts, and there's $5 million in ongoing federal, state and private funding. Experts agree that a major construction project's phosphorous-laden dust worsens the problem.

WestRock also needs to obtain groundwater permits for the 670-acre deep aquifer water source and wastewater treatment facility it has planned for the site. Because developers want to lay pipes and power lines across federal lands, they also need support from the U.S. Forest Service. At a Sept. 14 Idaho Land Board meeting, a Forest Service representative said the agency would insist on a complete environmental review.

An economic squeeze

Weilmunster and other WestRock developers have another ally in town: the regional timber bust. Around McCall and Donnelly, 18-wheel logging trucks roll southbound along State Highway 55, destined for the Boise Cascade Corp. mill in Cascade.

Fears of a shutdown persist among local business owners, even though Boise Cascade has announced some $6.7 million in improvements for the mill during the past year. Many locals watched Boise Cascade's late 1990s closures in Horseshoe Bend and Council, and they fear the Cascade mill will be the next to go.

"If (Boise Cascade) goes, (WestRock) is even more important," says Cascade businessman Fred O'Brien. "In any event, we need the winter economy. We have no winter economy here that's viable. The businesses here have to make enough in the summer to carry them through the winter. That's not the way it's supposed to work."

Judy Anderson argues that WestRock would inflate local property values, causing property taxes to skyrocket and driving many small-business people - including farmers and ranchers - out of business.

"I think it's unconscionable at this point in time to build an exclusive, elite town for the very, very rich, made up of second, third and fourth homes," she says. "It's a total misuse of resources."

Dave Goins writes from Boise, Idaho.

You can contact ...

* Donald Weilmunster, 208/333-0902;

* Idaho Division of Environmental Quality, Cascade office, 208/382-6808;

* Judy Anderson, Citizens for Valley County, 208/634-5594.