Friday, September 12, 2008

Developer learns prairie rules

Whos the man making waves on the Camas Prairie?

Express Staff Writer

George Martin Jr. is new man in an old place. Hes testing the establishment in Camas County, and hes been forced to adjust his life as a result. Photo by Greg Stahl

George Martin Jr. didn't used to pack heat. That was before he moved to Camas County.

"I'm not even a hunter," he said. "I never carried a gun or anything like that, but I ended up getting a gun for self defense, got a concealed weapons permit and now carry. That's not who I am, but that's the environment that's forcing me to do this stuff."

Having moved to Camas County, Blaine County's neighbor to the west, about four years ago from Seattle, Martin is a relative newcomer to the rural Idaho stage. But that hasn't stopped him from challenging the status quo. That challenge, he said, has not helped him make friends.

For a period of years he has attended meetings of the Camas County Commission and Camas County Planning and Zoning Commission, and over those years he has become something of a self-made local government watchdog, culminating in an ongoing lawsuit against the county over zoning amendments made last year.

The lawsuit resumed in August after failed settlement attempts last spring. In the suit Martin accused members of both the county P&Z and County Commission of illegally rezoning at least 20,000 acres of the county and ignoring conflicts of interest.

Meanwhile, Martin said, the tires of his Ford crew-cab pickup were slashed during a town hall meeting, and he and several like-minded friends were refused service at the Soldier Creek Brewing Co. in Fairfield.

"I'm tired of it," he said. "These guys—I'm not making a difference. They're not paying attention. They don't give a damn. They're going to continue circumventing the law whether we've got a watchdog here or not."

Chris Bradley is owner of Soldier Creek Brewing Co. where Martin was refused service. The decision to give Martin the boot was his.

"A couple years ago I originally kicked him out because they would come in and spread all their papers over the table," Bradley said, referring to Martin and other area residents who were unhappy with local politics. "They would sit there and bad mouth people, and I have lots of other customers."

Bradley, who has lived in Fairfield since 1996, said that at one point he mentioned to Martin and friends that they were welcome at the restaurant, but it would be appreciated if their politically oriented work was left outside.

A few days later, when Bradley said he was not there, the Martin group did as they had done before, this time allegedly becoming argumentative with the woman who was working that day.

"After that I said, 'You guys are not welcome in here anymore,'" Bradley said. "That's my right as a business owner, to refuse business to anyone, especially when they start attacking an employee."

Bradley said he called the sheriff. Martin said he called the sheriff. The sheriff didn't return a reporter's phone call, but both accounts say the sheriff arrived and informed Martin that he must do as he was asked.

For Bradley, it's not about the politics.

"It really had nothing to do with me being on one side or the other," he said. "I think everybody's tired of all of his [crap], and they're seeing through it all right now. These are elected officials, you know."

Bradley said he supports the Camas County Commission. They were elected with popular support, which he said they continue to have.

"I think they're doing their job," he said. "I mean, I know all of them personally. Let them do their job. Maybe they messed up a little here and there, but I don't think they did anything intentionally."

Martin said he doesn't want to be intimidated by his neighbors and so began parking in front of Bradley's business when he goes into town. Each time he does, he said a sign emerges in the front window of the brewery. Written on green paper in blue ink it makes plain in profane language that Martin is not welcome.

Camas County was split off from Blaine in 1917. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated Camas County's 2006 population to be just over 1,000. The city of Fairfield, the county seat, has a population of close to 400. Camas County and its inherent Camas Prairie are so named for the camas root, a lily-like plant that was harvested by Native Americans. Its roots are said to taste like sweet potatoes.

To the onlooker, the expanse of the Camas Prairie seems timeless, but change is gnawing at its edges. People like Martin have moved there to embrace the natural beauty. Others, like Pamela Tucker, say they tried and failed.

With two farms and a home in Fairfield, Tucker has been a Camas County landowner for 25 years, but the four years she lived in Fairfield changed the way she thinks about rural parts of Idaho, which is where she's lived her entire life.

"Camas County is where I fell in love with the land, frankly," said the Hailey resident, who lived in the rural Idaho hamlet with her husband, Dick, from November 2004 through January 2008. "(But) what really goes on is a layer under the surface. There is a cultural rift. I think there are a lot of good people who have put on their little rose-colored glasses."

Dennis Foisy moved to the Camas Prairie from Washington state. He's been there three years and expressed sentiments similar to Tucker's.

"The people who are doing things wrong are trying to keep it covered up, and the people who are new are seeing things that are wrong and are being shut down," Foisy said in an early August interview. "There is so much covert agreement inside the realm."

Foise said there is an establishment in Fairfield that wants things done the old, "under-the-carpet" way.

"Anything that has the potential for seeing the light of day is just being shut down," he said.

At the core of Foise's, Tucker's and Martin's discontent are county planning issues. They're upset with the rezone in which 20,000 acres of the rural, agrarian county were adjusted, they said, without consideration for the services that would be required to accommodate increased building densities.

The resulting lawsuit pits Martin against the County Commission and Planning and Zoning Commission. The case has been ongoing for about a year, and the Camas Prairie's soil has been figuratively soiled in the discontent that ensued. Also, the county is amassing unusually high legal fees.

In separate preliminary injunctions issued last winter 5th District Judge Robert Elgee ruled in Martin's favor. In the first injunction, issued in December 2007, Elgee ruled that the process appeared preordained.

"To an outsider, all of this looks as if the Board of Commissioners has gathered the data, deliberated along the way, consulted with their P&Z Commissioner, and made changes and revisions to the proposed Comp Plan, Zoning Ordinance, and Zoning Map, all without a record," the judge wrote. "Then, once everything had been decided, they held a public hearing, on the record."

In the second injunction Elgree called the actions of P&Z Chairman Ed Smith and County Commission Chairman Ken Backstrom "egregious."

"It is undisputed that both Smith's and Backstrom's property were directly affected by the zoning changes and that they were both in a position to possibly influence or perhaps direct changes to zoning: At a minimum both participated in the decision to make such changes," Elgee wrote in his April 2, 2007, decision.

As the trial commenced last May, however, a settlement appeared imminent. Martin agreed to drop the case in exchange for rezoning of his property and a county agreement to fairly treat subdivision applications and pay Martin's attorney's fees.

The county's decision to reject the settlement was made after a closed meeting, Commission Chairman Ken Backstrom told the Twin Falls Times News in July. Backstrom said the commission saw no reason to pay Martin's $54,000 in attorney's fees.

Tucker pointed a finger at Backstom and his comments.

"The Camas County Commission chairman has said this is a colossal joke and a huge waste of time," Tucker said. "Well, as one of the people paying for this I don't find it very funny. This is a premeditated attempted murder of a man's spirit and character, which is what I see happening to George Martin."

She said Martin talks issues and is assertive, and she believes that is something relatively out of the ordinary on the Camas Prairie.

"George really has found himself in trouble with a community that really doesn't want to understand," she said.

Before moving to Fairfield, Martin said he looked at Tamarack Resort, Driggs and Jackson Hole as potential places to hang his hat.

"I really felt that this was going to be a really beautiful place in the future that was going to have a strong economic base," he said.

But he believes he was an outsider from the beginning and quickly felt disenfranchised. After a short while he was prepared to move.

"I mentally was moving away," he said. "The piece of property we have—we have outstanding views. I was prepared to move, but my wife's made the decision that she doesn't want to move. We moved here to retire, and she's hopeful that this will eventually rectify itself."

In the meantime, Martin's lawsuit, and his crusade, continues. And so do the repercussions of those choices.

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