The Nov. 4 election in Bellevue will provide a referendum for voters on the manner and speed with which the city appears to be moving toward annexation of 227 acres of the Eccles Flying Hat Ranch north of town.
A Pizza and Politics political forum hosted by the Idaho Mountain Express on Wednesday drew about 80 people to Bellevue Elementary School to quiz candidates on issues facing the city. The forum provided a look at the priorities of some of those who could lead the city forward in 2015.
Bellevue City Council members Larry Plott, Barb Patterson and Amber Avila will need to fight to keep their seats against challengers who demand more public input and more time to consider the impacts of the proposed annexation, which would nearly double the city’s size and bring 91 acres of Business zoning, as well as a potential commercial strip with “big box” retail stores, to a one-mile stretch of state Highway 75 north of town.
“This is a critical election,” said challenger Craig Wolfrom. “It is about what we want to leave our children.”
Wolfrom is running in cooperation with James Stireman and Robert Leahy in an effort to put the brakes on the proposed Eccles annexation, which they claim will devastate property values in the already depressed downtown core and forever alter the character of the city.
The three challengers claim that 205 residential units yet to be built in the recently annexed Strahorn subdivision reduce the need for several more residential neighborhoods, as are proposed for the Eccles annexation.
The incumbents, led by Plott, claim that during their tenure the city has seen infrastructure improvements that have led to increased commercial activity possible in Bellevue, and that the city is simply following normal procedures in reviewing the annexation request and in re-writing its comprehensive plan.
Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Chase Gouley and several former city leaders say the process has been rushed and that the comprehensive plan changes, recommended by Planning Director Craig Eckles, are overly accommodating to the Eccles group.
“I didn’t know that we were in a hurry,” said Plott, who called himself “big box boy,” for his support of the concept and having supported a proposed Home Depot in Bellevue several years ago. “This [annexation request] has been through Planning and Zoning, and now they [city staff and the Eccles group] are going through the city code about it.”
The P&Z approved recommendation of the Eccles annexation during one meeting in late July, despite a lack of details on the proposed development.
Following the decision, the City Council authorized a $6,000 study by Kansas-based development consultant Richard Caplan & Associates to determine the “cost” of the proposed annexation to the developers, which City Attorney Rick Allington said would include impacts to city services.
By Sept. 19, Eckles had rewritten parts of the city’s comprehensive plan, portions of which the P&Z refused to sign off on, claiming that many of Eckles’ recommendations were designed to accommodate the goals of the Eccles, including commercial strip development and growth far beyond the target area of city impact, up to the city limits of Hailey.
As the city awaits the results of the Caplan study to draw up an annexation agreement with the developer, a citizens committee, appointed by Mayor Chris Koch, is working through a rewrite of the comprehensive plan, which could be completed by the end of October.
The committee was formed after about 25 Bellevue residents crowded City Hall in late September calling for a slowdown in the process of consideration of Eckles’ recommended changes to the plan. (By comparison, a similar revision of Sun Valley’s comprehensive plan has been ongoing for two years.)
The six candidates were questioned at the Wednesday forum about three controversial recommendations by Eckles that could ultimately change the look of the south valley: the elimination of a requirement for an open space corridor between Bellevue and Hailey, an increase in commercial “strip development” and the elimination of a city growth boundary map that would decrease by half the Eccles annexation’s potential northern reach.
Plott said the comprehensive plan was “nothing more than a mission and a guide” that would have to be backed up by ordinance.
The three challengers expressed strong opinions based on the many facts already contained in Eckles’ comprehensive plan revision.
“I would discourage strip development,” said James Stireman.
Stireman said he thinks the boundary map is a “good idea.”
Wolfrom agreed, saying, “We don’t want strip development and big box stores on Highway 75. We should get public input on the growth boundary.”
He said keeping a visual corridor between the towns is part of a “valley-wide aesthetic” that should be continued.
Patterson said “facts need to become known” before she can make a responsible decision. Avila, likewise, said she “could not form an opinion” because she “did not have all the facts.”
Candidate Leahy took the incumbents at their word and challenged what appeared to be their laissez-faire attitude toward a matter that many Bellevue residents are quite concerned about.
“If we do not have enough facts, why rush through [the comprehensive plan rewrite] and just check off the red lines [made by Eckles]?” Leahy said. “Do we want as much giant retail as possible?”
Council Chair David Hattula, who was not participating in the forum, asked the candidates whether “strip development” already exists in Hailey and Bellevue. One of Eckles recommendations calls for removal of language in the comprehensive plan discouraging commercial strip development.
“If Family Dollar store and the Valley Co-op are box stores, then we are guilty,” Patterson said.
Avila said she shops at Albertsons in Hailey (which is about the same size of the maximum allowed in Bellevue).
Plott said stores comparable in size to Atkinsons’ Market in Bellevue would be allowed in the proposed annexation under current zoning.
“That would be as big as they get,” Plott said. “When more people come in and shop, it has helped. Maybe it will improve businesses in the downtown.”
“But Atkinsons’ is a local company,” Stireman said. “The businesses at Bullion Square [in Hailey] are local businesses. It’s not just about size, but about how employees are treated and where the money’s going.”
In his closing remarks, Wolfram more explicitly addressed the issue of competition to local entrepreneurs from chain stores and restaurants.
“It’s Tula’s Hair Salon versus Supercuts, Mahoney’s restaurant versus Buffalo Wild Wings, and Jane’s Artifacts versus Family Dollar store. The decision is yours,” he said.
Patterson said people are now driving from Ketchum to the Valley Country Store in Bellevue for bird seed, and to Family Dollar Store for decorations.
“Competition is good,” Patterson said.
Several audience members also questioned the panel about rising sewer and water rates, which are projected to hit about $100 per month for an average household in 2015.
The incumbents claim that only new growth, such as that proposed for the Eccles annexation, will reduce the higher sewer fees resulting from construction of a new sewage treatment plant built six years ago near the end of the real estate boom.
“We have a fine sewer plant, but not enough hookups,” Plott said.
The challengers, led by Wolfrom, said the sitting council missed an opportunity to reduce the sewer rates when it relieved Strahorn developer Jeff Pfaeffle of about $3.1 million in annexation fees, based on a Caplan economic impact study from 2006 that was updated in August.
Stireman said $1.3 million of the fees that Pfaeffle was forgiven should have gone to reduce the existing sewer bond.
“That would have been the new development Larry [Plott] is talking about,” Stireman said.
Former City Administrator Tom Blanchard asked the sitting council members whether the Caplan study currently under way to establish an annexation fee for the Eccles annexation would remove requirements for sewer hookup fees, as it had for Pfaeffle’s Strahorn project.
“Have you given similar instruction to Caplan, with regard to the Eccles?” Blanchard asked.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Patterson said.
Avila, likewise, said she did not understand the formula used for annexation fees as related to sewer hookups.
Plott dismissed Blanchard’s question, saying, “We got $2 million from Strahorn and a good development for Bellevue.”
The revised comprehensive plan is scheduled to be presented at a public hearing on Monday, Oct. 27. The annexation question has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.