Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Residents sue county over Willis airport: Plaintiffs claim Camas County commissioners illegally amended zoning ordinance

Several Fairfield-area residents are suing Camas County for allowing an airport to be built on agricultural-zoned land owned by actor Bruce Willis, contending that county commissioners illegally amended language in the county’s zoning ordinance.

Filed January 25th by Ketchum attorney Ben Worst, the lawsuit seeks an injunction against enforcement of the new ordinance language and an order halting further construction of the airport.

Willis caused a stir among Camas Prairie residents in September as locals questioned his intentions in building Soldier Field Airport with an 8,500-foot dirt runway—1,000 feet longer than the paved runway at Friedman Memorial Airport—east of Fairfield.

During a public meeting December 19th, then-County Commissioners Barb Cutler, Kenneth Backstrom and Ron Chapman voted to allow private airports as a permitted use in AG-80, Agriculture-zoned, county lands, a move they said would bring nine existing private airstrips, including Willis’, into compliance.

During the same meeting, the commissioners amended the zoning ordinance to allow commercial airports only on land zoned Industrial.

The commissioners also added language requiring property owners to obtain a conditional-use permit if they want to build a private airport in that zone, as well as in the Agriculture Transition and Agriculture-40 zones.

Under the previous Camas County zoning ordinance, only feedlots, employee housing, stockyards, nurseries and roadside stands could be built on land zoned for agricultural use.

Camas County Planning and Zoning Administrator Dwight Butlin said in an interview in mid-September that the county “does not regulate private airstrips under the current zoning ordinance.”

But on September 21st, at Worst’s request, Butlin issued a stop-work order at the site, located about 10 miles east of Fairfield, writing in the order that “airports are not listed in the zoning ordinance as an approved use in the Agriculture District.”

In the lawsuit’s complaint, Worst stated that work at the site did not cease when the stop-work order was issued.

“For weeks after September 21st, 2016, the owners continued to grade the runway and install culverts underneath it for drainage,” he wrote. “The County approved of this work stating that while airports are not a permitted use, the County has no power to stop a landowner from grading its land and installing culverts.”

Butlin knew about Soldier Field Airport as far back as May, Worst wrote, citing email correspondence between a building contractor and Butlin dated May 9 in which FAA approval and EPA permits are mentioned in regard to the “Bruce Willis Private Runway.”

Worst wrote that the Planning and Zoning Commission and county commissioners violated the Idaho Local Land Use Planning Act by failing to zone for the airport in accordance with the county’s comprehensive plan.

“Even though they were required to do so, they made no factual inquiry regarding how the amendments to the Zoning Ordinance might be in accordance with the policies set forth in the Comprehensive Plan,” he states. “Comprehensive Plan policies that the County should have considered include the preservation of ag land, ag activities, quality of life, public safety, wildlife migration corridors and water quality.”

Worst alleges that the county failed to consider the effects of the airport on local emergency responders, who will need to be “adequately staffed, trained and equipped to respond to a plane crash.”

“This is particularly important in the case at hand as an accident at the Soldier Field Airport will almost certainly involve fire and bodily injury, possibly on a large scale and possibly at locations well beyond the property lines of the Soldier Field Airport,” the complaint states.

Worst wrote that the P&Z did not recommend that the county commissioners adopt a draft amended ordinance, a requirement under Idaho law, but rather recommended that amendments be “considered.”

He argued that the county commissioners also failed to seek legally required public comment when considering amending the zoning ordinance.
   
The complaint states that the language in the new zoning ordinance does not restrict commercial activity at private airports, limit the size or number of hangers that could be built, define the size of an airport or the types of planes that land there, restrict when planes can land or take off, or place restrictions on noise and lights.

“At present, the only restriction on airports in the AG-80 zone in Camas County is that they must be ‘private’ defined only as required by the owner’s permission to land,” Worst wrote. “… As soon as it is finished, Soldier Field Airport and any other airport in Camas County could be used as a cargo airport, a drone airport, an airport for R&D and experimental aircraft or a heli base.”

The draft ordinance presented to the commissioners in December would have made airports on all Agriculture-zoned land a conditional use requiring a permit, Worst wrote. Instead, by making airports a permitted use in the AG-80 zone, the commissioners “provided for unlimited numbers of aircraft hangers and unlimited size as an accessory use to an airport.”

Listed as plaintiffs in the suit are Camas County residents Dave Konrad, Chad Blincoe, Chris Tuttle and Fred and Misty Cook.

All reside, farm or ranch near the airport site and contend that their property values will decrease by as much as 50 percent “as a result of the negative impacts of Soldier Field Airport and amended Zoning Ordinance allowing for airports.”

Worst wrote that the plaintiffs will be “threatened by the possibility of aircraft crashing” on their properties and by the wildfires that could be ignited by a potential crash.

He wrote that the “noise, lights, fumes, dust and vibrations” from the airport will detract from the plaintiffs’ enjoyment of their properties and that their animals will be harmed, as well.

Butlin declined to comment when reached by phone Tuesday, as did Camas County Commissioner Barb Cutler. Both cited the litigation.

Current Camas County Commissioners Marshall Ralph and Travis Kramer could not be reached for comment by press deadline Tuesday, nor could Willis spokesman Mike Grbic.

Willis has not identified the intended use of the airport.

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