Friday, May 27, 2005

East Fork debates tests hillside protections

County Comission to issue decision within 28 days


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

The dirt on the left is where Michael Rollins has excavated a driveway to access the flat ground above. The home on the right is where Brian Poster lives. Poster is appealing a county decision that does not place Rollins' lot in the county's Mountain Overlay district. Poster's property is in the Mountain Overlay.

East Fork resident Brian Poster is fighting his neighbor's new home. But it's not the new home, per se, that Poster is upset about.

Rather, Poster is unhappy that Blaine County determined his potential new neighbor is allowed to build on a sloping lot more than 100 feet above the valley floor of the East Fork of the Big Wood River.

The lot clearly should be subject to the rules and regulations of the county's Mountain Overlay zoning district, Poster said. Blaine County staff members, however, determined the Mountain Overlay does not apply, despite the fact that neighboring lots with similar topography must conform to the overlay's restrictions.

Things came to a head in December when Michael Rollins graded a driveway up a steep slope on East Fork Road to access more moderate slopes above. East Fork residents were outraged, and the excavation quickly became known as "the open pit mine" among some East Fork residents.

On Thursday morning, the Blaine County Commission sat down to sort things out. They heard arguments from attorneys representing both Poster and Rollins and then voted unanimously to take the matter into consideration for a maximum of 28 days.

"I don't dispute that he has a right to have a home there, but he has to play within the rules," Poster said after the Thursday hearing. "I have an appeal against a county decision. I'm not fighting Rollins."

The goal, should Poster win his appeal, is to convince the county that Rollins' lot is worthy of Mountain Overlay protections and to thereby require increased design review scrutiny.

"He should have to build on the road," said Poster, who owns a home at the foot of his neighboring lot on East Fork Road.

At the hearing, attorneys for both Poster and Rollins presented arguments for about 25 minutes each.

"Michael Rollins is the little guy," said Ketchum attorney Ed Lawson. "He's not the guy you're going to see flying in here for the (Sun Valley) wine auction. He did nothing wrong. He bought this property 10 years ago with a dream that he would one day build his home here."

Lawson said Rollins is fully invested in construction of his new home, both financially and emotionally. It's too late to turn back, Lawson said.

Lawson argued that Poster's appeal was filed too late and that county planners made the proper determination with respect to the Mountain Overlay to begin with.

Poster's arguments were obviously different.

"A house on this so-called bench will skyline," said Hailey attorney Fritz Haemmerle. "It will be visible from the highway, and that is what we do not want."

Haemmerle said the "ultimate issue" is a question of whether there is such a thing as an exclusion from the Mountain Overlay zone for a "bench" of land. If there were, private properties high on ridges of mountains throughout the Wood River Valley would be developable, Haemmerle said.

As a matter of fact, a bench is defined by Blaine County ordinance as "a level step created by the former flood deposits of a river."

Rollins' lot is 1,250 feet away from the East Fork of the Big Wood River, and 143 feet higher in elevation.

According to Haemmerle, if the county accepts that Rollins' lot is a bench, then it might also be declaring Mountain Overlay protections null and void.

Lawson, however, said a 20-day time limit set by county ordinance for timely appeals had long since expired when Poster filed.

He also said his client was "continuously reassured" by the county that there was nothing preventing him from continuing work on his new home.

"He's invested his entire net worth in this project," Lawson said. "More importantly, he's invested his emotional being in this project. The scarred property (along East Fork Road) is work in progress. He has every intention of revegetating."

Haemmerle reiterated that his client does not hold Rollins entirely responsible.

"We feel sorry for Mr. Rollins in some way, too, because we believe he was led astray by P&Z decisions," he said.

Each attorney gave the indication he would appeal the decision to a judge if the County Commission does not rule in his favor.




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