Friday, November 7, 2014

Bellevue voters call for change

3 challengers win on campaigns to slow annexation review process

Express Staff Writer

     Bellevue voters turned out in droves on Tuesday in an election that pitted opponents of a speedy Eccles annexation review process against incumbent City Council members who touted past successes and said they held the best promise for the city’s future.

     “The citizens voted for the challengers or incumbents who addressed the issues that were important to them,” said Mayor Chris Koch. “That is the great part of the democratic process. Every voice counts.”

     Incumbent City Council members Amber Avila (246 votes), Barbara Patterson (283 votes) and Larry Plott (260) will step down on Jan. 1 to make way for challengers James Stireman (357 votes), Craig Wolfrom (376 votes) and Robert Leahy (327 votes).

     Blaine County election officials reported that 667 ballots were cast, representing more than 63 percent of the 1,049 registered voters in the city of 2,300.

     The 2010 election that brought Patterson and Plott into office brought out 540 of 1,052 registered voters, just over 50 percent. The 2009 election that seated City Council chair Dave Hattula brought out only 14 percent of voters.

     Stireman said the campaign was “a lot of work,” and that he appreciates all the help provided by supporters.

     “I think Bellevue has a bright future. I look forward to working with the City Council and mayor,” Stireman said.

     “It is a good feeling to win,” said Wolfrom. “It is an affirmation that the citizens want to create an open dialogue with the city, to take their time and have more input with city hall and the City Council.”

     Leahy could not be reached for comment.

     City leaders took heat in recent months as residents claimed that the Bellevue Planning Department and Planning and Zoning Commission have rushed the review of an annexation request by the Eccles family that could bring 91 acres of Business zoning (and possibly big-box retail stores) along a mile of state Highway 75 between Bellevue and Hailey.

     Critics have claimed that several changes made by Planning Director Craig Eckles to the city’s Comprehensive Plan were made in order to accommodate the proposed development, which they say could have detrimental effects on the business community and adversely affect the look of the Wood River Valley.              

     “They (voters) want to maintain an aesthetic which 40 years of planning in the valley has created, an aesthetic that includes locally owned and operated stores,” said Wolfrom.

     Wolfrom said he joined Stireman and Leahy in a door-to-door campaign to win voter approval.

     “It was great getting to know constituents on that level. I think this is something City Council members should do regularly.

     “I only met a couple of people who were pro rapid development. Many wanted to see a rewrite of the entire Comprehensive Plan, rather than the line-item deal (provided by Eckles) that was offered. They want to see the annexation process slow down. People are not anti-development in Bellevue. They just want to see it done right.”

     Wolfrom speculated that what hurt the incumbents was not providing an open forum in recent weeks for people to speak freely about the Eccles annexation.

     “They could have been better communicators about the process, including the timeline for annexation procedures. This created a lot of fear about what might happen,” Wolfrom said.

     Wolfram said he hopes the City Council will take the initiative to have a joint meeting with the P&Z Commission and Eckles to hear opinions on the proposed annexation as new information becomes available, “so we can get a pulse of a larger percentage of the population.”

     The city expects a report by Richard Caplan Associates to determine the impacts to city services the proposed Eccles annexation would create.

     “When that Caplan report comes in, we should make it public and have a public hearing before any decisions are made,” Wolfram said. “The nervous thing on everyone’s mind is whether they [the City Council] are going to try to hammer this through before January. That would be a bad way to go after this election, when three of us have run on campaigns that say, ‘Let’s take our time with this.’”

     Koch would not say whether he will hold a public hearing about the Caplan study, nor would he say if the Eccles annexation would be on the agenda before the new City Council members take their seats in early January.

     “The Caplan study is still being worked on. They are still collecting data. There is no set time for its arrival,” Koch said in an email.   

     “At this time, I do not have the annexation request on any upcoming agenda,” he wrote.

     Koch, who ran unopposed, was re-elected to the city’s top office on Tuesday.

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