Friday, October 19, 2007

County rejects Cove Springs

Attorney for controversial project hints at possible legal challenge

Express Staff Writer

Based on the overall tone of their deliberation over the Cove Springs application this week, it seemed almost inevitable that the Blaine County Commission would eventually vote to deny the controversial development proposal.

As the Cove Springs developers listened in silence before noon on Thursday, that eventuality happened. Moments after wrapping up their lengthy deliberation, the three-member commission voted unanimously to deny the development application, which has been called the largest single development proposal ever brought before the county.

Perhaps just as inevitable was the developers' response to that outcome. Speaking to the commissioners just minutes after they made their decision, Martin Flannes, attorney for the Cove Springs project, accused the three-member body of having made a series of mistakes in denying the development application.

In comments made after the three-hour meeting broke, Flannes went even further.

"Certain commissioners have some fundamental misunderstandings relating to the project. I believe there has been several basic legal mistakes as well. Litigation appears likely," he was quoted as saying in a news release sent out after the meeting.

As of press time Thursday, Flannes had given no further explanation of his comments. It remains to be seen what direction the Cove Springs project backers will take in response to the commissioners' negative finding for their application.

Also unclear is to what extent they disagree with the vote and what aspects of the commission's deliberation the project backers find most disagreeable.

For the commissioners, the project's large size, scope and location in rural Blaine County gave them the greatest heartburn. The massive nature of the proposed project is a promotion of urban-style development in an area that has until now been almost entirely agricultural oriented, each of the commissioners said at one time or another.

"This is very much to me a town-type of development," Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said during a special meeting Wednesday.

Schoen said the negative tradeoffs for the county and county taxpayers if the project were to be approved are too great. He said county roads and other public services would be harmed should the development move forward.

"This development will demand more from this county than it will give," Schoen said.

Making matters worse, the development wouldn't provide essential services like public schools, gas, food and emergency response that cities have, he said. One only has to look to the city of Carey, which has about 250 homes compared to the 307 the developers proposed for Cove Springs, to realize the need for services that would come from residents of the development, he said.

Schoen predicted that it would only be a matter of time before the Cove Springs developers would request rezoning or pursue incorporation of the development as a new city "to provide the services it will so desperately need."

Had the commission approved Cove Springs, the subdivision would have been located five miles southeast of Bellevue on the east side of the Gannett-Picabo Road. As proposed, much of the development would have been tucked away mid-way up the large, mostly undeveloped cove that gives the 4,630-acre Cove Ranch its name, and would have been largely invisible from the road.

The 307-lot development would have been capable of supporting more than 1,000 residents. The vast majority of the ranch, including the high sagebrush-covered uplands that encircle the cove and the irrigated farm lands, would have been permanently preserved as open space.

Owners of the ranch have indicated a desire to continue farming most of the irrigated portions of the property, hence their proposal to keep them largely development-free.

Each of the commissioners praised the developers' desire to preserve productive farmland in the Bellevue Triangle, one of the last primarily agricultural areas in the county.

But while they applauded that effort, saying the development plan would have no negative impacts on the internal agricultural activities on the ranch, they repeatedly predicted that the project would have grave impacts on surrounding agricultural uses.

The development proposal drew numerous comments from a variety of county agricultural interests, a group of people who as a whole are generally private in their affairs.

Schoen said every one of the farmers and ranchers from the Bellevue Triangle who spoke out during the public hearings "oppose this project."

Echoing some of his previous comments, he said the project's scale and density is entirely out of balance with the surrounding agricultural uses. Most troubling for farmers and ranchers are the potential impacts the project could have on surface and ground water resources in the area, which is the lifeblood of the agricultural industry, he said.

"I view the impacts to be unacceptable," Schoen said.

The commission also found the project's potential impacts on wildlife and wildlife habitat too great. Numerous times the commissioners brought up the fact that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game requested the county deny the application because of its likely impacts on wintering mule deer and elk, which agency biologists said rely on the habitat-rich cove at various times throughout the year.

Addressing the issue, Blaine County Commissioner Tom Bowman said Fish and Game has admitted it can't point to a direct cause-and-effect impact the project would have on wildlife should it be approved. Bowman said the department did say said the project would have "an additive impact" on herds of wildlife already impacted by the loss of habitat in the Wood River Valley area.

"It would be just one more thing," he said. "I agree with them."

In the weeks ahead, county planning staff will be finalizing the commission's findings on the Cove Springs application based on testimony during their deliberation phase. The commissioners set a tentative date of 9:30 a.m., Wednesday, Oct. 31, as the time where they will review the findings and make a final vote on them.

The Cove Springs development plan had previously been rejected by the county Planning and Zoning Commission.

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