Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Citizens committee reverses Eckles’ comp plan recommendations

“Strip development” discouraged, visual corridor supported

    A citizens committee formed recently to review changes to Bellevue’s comprehensive plan reversed several controversial recommendations made by Planning Director Craig Eckles last month.
    Eckles mounted a revision of the comp plan in September after the billionaire Eccles family of Utah requested annexation of 227 acres north of town, including 91 acres of Business zoning along a one mile stretch of state Highway 75.
    Numerous Bellevue residents and former city leaders criticized the city for moving too quickly toward annexation without gathering more public input on the proposed development, which would nearly double the size of the city. Many say it will devastate commercial property values downtown and bring strip-mall development to the Wood River Valley.
    Three challengers for City Council seats are running on platforms that call for restraint and careful and prolonged consideration of the annexation, but due to the speed at which the city is moving forward, the annexation could be approved before new City Council members take their seats on Jan. 1.    
    The Planning and Zoning Commission voted to recommend the annexation during one meeting on Sept. 22, based on a conceptual zoning map drawn up by the Eccles group.
    On Monday, the City Council is expected to approve a $6,000 study by Richard Caplan Associates that will provide the basis for an annexation agreement.
    Mayor Chris Koch said he would defer to Eckles on setting agendas for upcoming City Council meetings, which could soon contain a public hearing on an annexation agreement now under way between the city and the Eccles group.
    Koch formed the citizens committee at the insistence of the P&Z and a group of about 25 Bellevue residents who packed City Hall calling for a slowdown in the annexation review process. Koch limited the committee’s discussion to Eckle’s recommendations and did not allow public comment.
    After three meetings in one week, the citizens committee formed a consensus Monday challenging Eckles on many key issues. It voted to continue to discourage commercial “strip development” in Bellevue, to maintain a visual corridor between Bellevue and Hailey and work cooperatively with other governmental entities to provide services to the public.
    “Not working with other governments? That would be ridiculous,” said committee member Pat Rainey, who along with Fran McDonald abstained from voting on approval of the revised comp plan, which will be sent to the P&Z for a public hearing on Monday, Oct. 27.
    McDonald challenged the committee’s inclusion of recession-era growth data collected during the last five years in the new comp plan, saying it does not represent actual economic circumstances.
    “They say it will take 72 years for the infill in the city to build out, and only 20 years for the new Eccles annexation to be built out. I think that is wrong,” McDonald said.
    The committee agreed unanimously to require that land be developed to “ensure and improve a visual buffer/corridor” between the two cities.
    “We are all on the same page with regard to this,” said committee Chair Dick Fairfied in an interview. “This is a big deal for us.”
    Although Eckles also recommended removing language that “discourages” commercial strip development from the plan, that language was returned to the document under review by the committee Thursday.
    Though the committee was directed by Mayor Chris Koch to not address any changes to the plan that had not been recommended by Craig Eckles over the last few weeks, Rainey called for public comment after a committee meeting last week. He also called for public comment Monday night and was told not to by Eckles.
    Rainey also held up a letter from Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle written Oct. 7 recommending that Bellevue require a detailed development plan as part of any annexation. Eckles told Rainey that delivering the letter to the committee would have violated Koch’s directive to not allow public comment.
    The letter from Haemmerle recommends that Bellevue keep the area of city impact growth boundary map established in 2002, which would limit the northerly extension of the Eccles annexation to the already established northern boundary of the city.
    Eckles has repeatedly told the P&Z and the citizens committee to disregard the growth boundary because Blaine County did not ratify the area of city impact agreement.
    “The ACI does not exist,” Eckles said.
    Numerous other changes were made to Bellevue’s comp plan during the last week, which will be presented to the public on Oct. 22.
    The changes reflect new census data, airport issues and plans for a historic business district. The P&Z will review the proposed new document on Oct. 27 at a public hearing with a public comment period.
    Koch said he will limit public comment to two minutes per speaker.
    “We will see how the P&Z Commission handles these recommendations in the public process,” Eckles said.    

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