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For the week of Apr. 5 through Apr. 11, 2000

Landowners appear to prevail in dispute with commissioners

Supreme Court orders Blaine County to overhaul subdivision applications


The comp plan "does not operate as legally controlling zoning law, but rather serves to guide and advise the governmental agencies…"

Fifth District Court decision


By GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writer

In a case earlier described by Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Doug Werth as "one of the most significant land-use decisions to be made by the Idaho Supreme Court in the last 10 years," an Idaho Supreme Court decision may make it harder for Blaine County to deny property owners the right to subdivide.

In its decision, handed down on Monday, the court ruled unanimously that Blaine County must rely on its ordinances—and not its comprehensive plan—in deciding subdivision applications.

The case involved the county’s denial of two applications for south county properties. The denials were based on the grounds that although the proposed subdivisions otherwise met zoning requirements, they violated a comp plan directive to preserve agricultural land.

The applications had been submitted by the Urrutia family in 1994 to subdivide a 160-acre parcel into seven lots, and by Virginia Reed in 1995 to subdivide a 119-acre parcel into four lots. Both properties are in the county’s A-20 zone, which permits agricultural and residential uses.

The county board of commissioners initially approved both applications, but, upon protest by an adjoining landowner and review by Fifth District Court, later denied them. The applicants appealed the denial to Fifth District Court, which ordered the decision reversed, prompting the county to appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court.

The county argued that it was entitled to deny the applications on the grounds that they violated a zoning ordinance requirement that subdivisions conform to the comp plan. The court rejected that argument. Even in the context of the zoning ordinance, the court ruled, the comp plan "does not operate as legally controlling zoning law, but rather serves to guide and advise the governmental agencies …"

Otherwise, the court ruled, "such a result affords the Board unbounded discretion in examining a subdivision application and allows the Board to effectively re-zone land based on the general language in the comprehensive plan."

The court remanded the applications to the county, directing it to decide the issue on the more narrow grounds of whether the proposed subdivisions meet zoning and subdivision ordinances.

The Urrutias’ attorney, Gary Slette, said in an interview that he and his clients are pleased with the court’s ruling because it "rejected every one of the county’s positions all the way down the line." Slette called it "anybody’s guess" as to how the ruling will affect county decisions on future subdivision applications.

"I’m hoping that they will finally recognize what the role is of the ordinances and the role of the comp plan," Slette said.

Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Doug Werth, who argued the case for the county, was reported out of town and not available for comment yesterday.

Blaine County Commissioner Leonard Harlig painted a scenario far less clear-cut than that described by Slette. Emphasizing that he had not read the decision, Harlig pointed out that 1998 revisions to the county’s subdivision ordinance may have remedied the court’s objections. He said the ordinance now includes specific criteria that the county can use toward reaching its goal of preserving agriculture when deciding subdivision applications.

"If we’re (still) deficient somewhere along the line, then we’ll need to correct it," Harlig said.

However, Slette warned that further narrowing of permitted uses could result in constitutional "takings"—requiring the county to pay for the loss of value to landowners.

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Attorney Gary Slette, who has often represented property owners in land-use battles against local municipalities, said in an interview yesterday that he will use a recent Supreme Court decision "as a sword" in another, pending case.

Slette filed a $600,000 suit in Fifth District Court based on a constitutional "takings" claim against Blaine County on March 23, on behalf of clients William and May Helen Leet. The action resulted from the county’s denial of the Leets’ Baseline Ranch subdivision application.

The Leets’ proposed to subdivide 104 acres of farmland into four 26-acre parcels. The property, located in the heart of the Bellevue Triangle, is zoned A-20 Productive Agriculture. Blaine County Commissioners denied the application on Feb. 28.

Following a lengthy review process that began in April of last year, the commissioners ultimately denied the subdivision based on the county comprehensive plan’s mandate to preserve productive agriculture in the south part of the county.

However, the Idaho Supreme Court issued a decision on Monday rejecting that rationale in a similar case.

According to the court filing, the Leets acquired the Baseline Ranch property with the expectation that they would be able to develop it consistent with the applicable county zoning and subdivision ordinances.

The action seeks judgment against the county in the amount of $600,000, which allegedly represents the fair market value of the property that the plaintiffs say has been taken by the county for public use.

In the alternative, the action seeks declaratory relief ordering approval of the Baseline Ranch subdivision.

During the public hearing process, Slette argued that the proposed subdivision complied with the county’s subdivision and zoning ordinances. Slette contended that the comp plan was simply a guideline for governing development and that the ordinances were the law.

Furthermore, Slette argued that subdivision is a property right so long as minimum-density and other zoning requirements are met.

Express staff writer Kevin Wiser contributed to this story.

 

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