The Blaine County Commissioners agreed in principle Tuesday to enter into negotiations with the developers of Cove Ranch over the commission's rejection of a development plan for the 4,630-acre property late last year.
The agreement would allow either side to pull out of the mediation at any time if it feels the talks are not abiding by a memorandum of understanding tentatively agreed to Tuesday morning.
"I see no harm going forward with this," Commissioner Tom Bowman said.
The three-member County Commission unanimously rejected the massive 307-lot Cove Springs subdivision proposed for rural farmland five miles south of Bellevue on Oct. 18. In denying the project, the commissioners cited the development's large size, scope and location in rural Blaine County, as well as its potential impacts on wildlife and the local agriculture industry.
Cove Springs developers filed a lawsuit against the county in early January alleging improper procedure, arbitrary application of the law, lack of due process, bias and conflicts of interest.
The mediation request, first presented to the county Aug. 15 by Hailey attorney Martin Flannes, attorney for Cove Springs, follows the Jan. 8 lawsuit filed in 5th District Court by the developers. If successful, the mediation would mean the developers would drop the costly lawsuit in favor of a negotiated compromise.
"We are prepared to dismiss that litigation entirely," Flannes told the commission.
Speaking to the commissioners, Blaine County Deputy Prosecutor Tim Graves recommended they agree to the requested mediation. He said talks between himself and Flannes produced an agreement that protects the interests of the county and the developers.
Graves said the new mediation request is different from two previous ones presented to the county by the Cove Springs developers. For one, the new request contains specific parameters for topics to be discussed in an effort to come up with a solution to the impasse.
Graves said the agreement sets out who will participate in the mediation, how the public will be made aware of the results of the private talks and what the basic topics of discussion will be during the mediation.
A copy of the agreement provided to the public during the meeting states that the initial topics that will be discussed include talking points for a possible revised development plan, such as lot types, development patterns in the "Cove," accessory uses, amenities and public access. Additional topics that would be discussed include the impacts of the project on vehicular traffic on Gannett Road and on neighboring agricultural and residential uses.
During their discussion Tuesday morning, the commissioners voted unanimously to enter into mediation as long as the Cove Springs developers agreed to small modifications to the agreement. The changes would add several topics to the list of subjects to be discussed and include a provision prohibiting the use of any of the discussions in follow-up litigation should the talks fail to reach a compromise.
Blaine County Administrator Mike McNees told the commissioners that without the immunity provision, "I don't see that (mediation) as being functional."
The commissioners' approval of the mediation request was predicated on Flannes' discussing the changes with the Cove Springs developers and coming back to them Tuesday afternoon with the developers' okay. Commissioner Larry Schoen was designated to sign off on the agreement as soon as that happened.
During recent hearings related to the Cove Springs lawsuit, things have not gone well for Blaine County. Earlier this summer, county attorneys learned they won't be able to appeal several recent decisions by Blaine County 5th District Court Judge Robert Elgee that relate to the lawsuit, as they had hoped.
Against objections of the county attorneys, Elgee allowed Cove Springs attorneys to serve subpoenas on a number of public and private entities who submitted oral or written comments during the several-year hearing process before the county.
In a hearing before Elgee in June, Graves unsuccessfully argued that Elgee should allow them to appeal his decisions to the Idaho Supreme Court. The decisions the county had hoped to appeal relate to several ordinances Elgee has struck down as part of the lawsuit as well as his refusal to dismiss the case.
Should the county and Cove Springs developers agree to mediation, the agreement would effectively put the lawsuit on hold and stop a process requested by the developers to seek new information from those they subpoenaed. Elgee granted the developer's request to conduct discovery on June 5.