For the week of September 2 thru September 8, 1998  

State hears local property rights testimony

60-some locals show at ‘takings’ hearing to criticize and support planners

Express Staff Writer

State legislators descended on Blaine County Monday to hear what county residents and politicians had to say--which was an earful--about local land-use planning policies’ effects on private property rights.

The hearing of the Legislative Council Interim Committee, formed by legislators to investigate the property issue between legislative sessions, was held in the old county courthouse in Hailey. The legislators heard hour upon hour of testimony, much of it tied to agriculturally zoned terrain.

Co-chaired by Rep. Jim Kempton, R_Albion, and Sen. Judi Danielson, R-Council, the committee is investigating whether county land-use regulations are restrictive enough to be considered "takings," whereby landowners are deprived of constitutionally protected property rights and therefore must be compensated.

Monday’s hearing was part of a statewide investigation to see if legislation to protect landowners’ property values is needed in the 1999 legislative session.

The mission was more general than specific. Rather than drawing up standards for takings, legislators were searching for information about how public regulations interact with private land rights.

Blaine County Commissioners Len Harlig and Mary Ann Mix said a bill enabling counties to mediate local land-use issues is a necessity.

Land-use decisions are so highly litigious that sometimes whatever decision county planners reach, they can count on its being contested by a denied applicant or disgruntled neighbor, Harlig explained.

"That’s no way to run a railroad," Kempton agreed.

Harlig also asked for enabling legislation to back Blaine County’s creation of a transfer of density rights plan (TDR). Under the plan, allowable density throughout the county would be shifted from agricultural areas to areas closer to towns. Owners of agriculturally zoned land could sell density rights to developers of land closer to population centers.

The committee questioned Harlig and Blaine County planning administrator Linda Haavik about county regulations such as the hillside ordinance, comprehensive plan and subdivision ordinance in light of takings issues.

"Our ordinances are constructed so private property rights are upheld and adhered to," Harlig testified.

In a county where property values have soared from $1 billion to $4.5 billion in eight years, Harlig said the public has a substantial stake in overall land management planning.

Some locals agreed with the commissioner.

"I don’t know that you can protect everybody and make sure everyone receives a fair shake," large-acreage ag land owner John Fell Stevenson said. "The zoning process is a democratic process that everyone can participate in."

Rancher Tom O’Gara said state guidance would help lead local politicians’ land-use plans.

"Our issues are complex but our issues are local," O’Gara said. "This is an economic issue of money and how much money."

Others’ concerns ran the other way and said the county has too much say in what private landowners can do with their dirt.

Ketchum Realtor and southern ag land owner Lloyd Betts said that during his 24-year residency, he’s seen a, "transition from the rule of law to a much more subjective regime."

"No one knows what they have any more," Betts said. "No one knows what they’re selling."

Picabo rancher Nick Purdy, who helped write the original Blaine County Comprehensive Plan in 1977, said he was concerned about the overly-arduous length of the application process to develop land.

"It’s become so tangled and so bureaucratic that it just isn’t worth it," Purdy said. "It’s your worst nightmare to be in Blaine County and submit your application. People come up to me and say, ‘They’re out of control. They’ve gotta be stopped.’"

Frustrated to tears, landowner Virginia Reed said she has fought in court and hearings to subdivide her ag land into four large lots for a good seven years.

"I’ve done everything by the book," she said. "Now I’m in debt up to my ears. That’s what our county’s done."

Rancher Rob Struthers said a takings bill was needed to buffer locals from political shifts in county government.

"Things change, people change and their views aren’t always aligned with what they were a few years ago," Struthers said. "[Southern landowners’] retirement is in their land and there needs to be some representation for the interest of that landowner. I think we need some protection."

Kempton and Danielson, as well as representatives Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, Lawrence Denny, R-Midvale, Paul Kjellander, R-Boise, and senators Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, Gordon Crow, R-Hayden, and Lin Whitworth, D-Inkom, who also sit on the committee, will continue considering how issues of state legislation relate to private property rights.


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