Friday, January 2, 2009

County 2008: Litigation and dispatch funding challenge officials

Affordable housing and avalanche hazard also demand attention

Express Staff Writer

County and city leaders spent much of 2008 arguing over who should pay for the salaries and benefits of emergency dispatchers, a problem that was fully resolved by the end of the year. Photo by David N. Seelig

     It wasn’t long before it became clear that 2008 would be a busy year in BlaineCounty government. From a lawsuit challenging the county’s right to deny the single largest development ever proposed in the county to a dispute over who should fund the salaries of dispatchers that’s stretched on since June, it was a busy year for county officials.

     Here are some of the notable county issues that grabbed the headlines this year:              


Dispatch shakes things up

    Local officials have never been accused of being opposed to holding meetings, and 2008 was no exception. Beginning in June, county and city officials held upwards of a dozen meetings to try to break a contentious logjam over the issue of who should pay for dispatcher salaries and benefits at the county’s new consolidated dispatch center. The funds are needed to pay for the salaries of the 12 to 13 emergency dispatchers who answer every police, fire and medical call from throughout the county.

     It all began last summer when Hailey leaders unexpectedly announced they wouldn’t contribute funds to help finance the dispatchers’ salaries during fiscal 2009. Bellevue leaders soon followed suit. However, in time, officials from both cities agreed to pay about a quarter of the amount that county officials had requested. 

     Of course, that was only for fiscal 2009, which began Oct. 1. Left undecided was the amount Hailey and Bellevue will contribute going forward. Several meetings attended by officials from the county and local cities during the past month have seen barbs traded back and forth, though there has seemed to be a gradual increase in the amount of discussion. 

     “I think this is a big manure pile, but there may be a pony under there,” said Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich in one of his more quotable moments in December.

     Officials left their latest dispatch-funding meeting in mid-December with—surprise—an agreement to meet again sometime in early January. They need to come to some kind of resolution to the vexing issue in time for the county and local cities’ budgeting sessions, which begin in the coming months.


Cove Springs sues

    This issue carried forward from October 2007, when the Blaine County Commission voted unanimously to reject the 307-lot Cove Springs subdivision. The owners of the large development, planned for a small portion of the 4,630-acre Cove Ranch five miles southeast of Bellevue on the Gannett-Picabo Road, followed suit by filing a lawsuit against the county on Jan. 8.

     In their lawsuit, the Cove Springs developers alleged improper procedure and arbitrary and capricious application of relevant law, lack of due process and the existence of bias and conflicts of interest. They also said that despite repeated offers, the county declined to enter into negotiations with them over the denial.

     “BlaineCounty has chosen to continue to take a political position against the Cove Springs project,” said Cove Springs President Steve Beevers.

     Into the first half of last summer, things weren’t going well for the county, with 5th District Court Judge Robert J. Elgee providing several stinging rulings against it. Whether that contributed or not, by August the county had agreed to go into talks with the Cove Springs developers.

     By late September, the county and Cove Springs wrapped up mediation, which spanned six long sessions covering 40 hours. Out of the talks, the developers agreed to come up with a revised development application and submit it to the county for consideration, which happened in December.

     In exchange for the county agreeing to consider the new application, the developers agreed to ask Elgee to place a temporary halt on their lawsuit until the revised development plan is considered. The judge granted that request on Oct. 31.


Affordable housing loses

     Efforts to provide affordable housing in the county saw a massive setback in 2008 when county officials overturned BlaineCounty’s most significant law dealing with affordable housing. In a surprising move, the county commissioners voted unanimously to initiate a repeal process for the county’s inclusionary housing ordinance based on a legal recommendation from Blaine County Deputy Prosecutor Tim Graves.

     The ordinance, approved by the county in June 2006, required future developments in unincorporated areas of the county to include 20 percent affordable housing.

     But Graves based his unexpected recommendation on a review of a Feb. 19 decision by 4th District Judge Thomas F. Neville that declared McCall’s requirement that 20 percent of all new development be set aside for deed-restricted housing illegal. In the decision, Neville ruled that the resort community’s affordable housing requirement is unconstitutional and amounts to an illegal tax.

     “We’ve been given very few tools to combat this (affordable housing) problem,” Graves said. “The fact of the matter is we live in a very conservative state.”

     The county is working to revise zoning rules that govern an affordable-housing overlay district that already exists south of Ketchum near the St. Luke’s WoodRiverMedicalCenter. Officials hope to create stronger incentives to encourage developers working in the South Gateway or McHanville area to provide affordable housing.


Avalanches cause headaches

     A series of powerful winter storms that swept over the WoodRiverValley last winter kept local emergency officials on their toes during the first month of 2008. Combining heavy snowfall and fierce winds, the storms created havoc in residential areas when numerous avalanches cut loose, covering roads, slamming into homes and generally making life difficult for north valley residents.

     Rather than focus their energy on the higher and more remote areas of the Smoky, Boulder and Pioneer mountains, the crew at the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center had to remain extra vigilant in more close-to-home areas like Ketchum’s Warm Springs neighborhood and north of town in Eagle Creek. Several homes in these areas saw extensive damage as snow swept over them, requiring the folks from the avalanche center to hastily investigate if anyone had been trapped, which was fortunately not the case.

    “We felt that was where we could be most effective,” said avalanche center Director Janet Kellam. “It was wild.”

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