Monday, May 29, 2017

Willis airport neighbors win lawsuit against Camas County: Judge Robert Elgee ruled that the county commissioners violated state law

A judge’s ruling has placed at least a temporary obstacle to actor Bruce Willis’ plan to build a private airstrip near Fairfield.

The ruling May 19 by Judge Robert Elgee in Camas County 5th District Court resolved a lawsuit filed by neighbors to Willis’ property who contended that the county had illegally enacted a new zoning ordinance allowing private airports in agriculturally zoned land.

Granting summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, Elgee found that the county commissioners and the Planning and Zoning Commission violated Idaho laws by ignoring the county’s comprehensive plan when drafting the ordinance and by failing to properly issue public notice when making a significant change to the ordinance.

Elgee’s ruling voided a portion of the ordinance pertaining to private airports on AG-80 land and remanded that portion to the county, making airports once again prohibited in that zone.

Camas County officials said they will reconsider that portion of the ordinance, but that it’s too soon to say what action, if any, could be taken.

The new ordinance, passed in December, made private airports a permitted use on AG-80-zoned land.

Allowing airports on agricultural land in Camas County has been a hot topic since the middle of last year, when Willis began constructing an 8,500-foot dirt runway, known as Soldier Field Airport, on AG-80-zoned land that he owns along U.S. Route 20 east of Fairfield. Willis has not publicly stated why he wants an airstrip there.

Neighbors and other property owners in the area opposed the airport, saying it would disturb agricultural activities and devalue their property, and that it violated the county’s comprehensive plan, which places foremost value on agricultural activity.

Work on the private runway, 1,000 feet longer than the commercial runway at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, was halted in September by P&Z Administrator Dwight Butlin after Ketchum attorney Ben Worst notified the county that AG-80 zoning did not allow airports. Butlin told the Idaho Mountain Express before the stop-work order that the county “does not regulate private airstrips under the current zoning ordinance” and that “the county has several other private airstrips, some with hangars.”

However, he stated in a Sept. 21 email to Willis’ property manager, Mike Grbic, regarding the stop-work order, that “[i]t has been brought to my attention that the current zoning ordinance does not list airports and according to a recent Idaho Supreme Court decision, if an item is not listed in the uses of a zone it is not allowed.”

In November, the P&Z recommended passage of a new zoning ordinance that would make private airports a conditional use on AG-80 land, meaning that any proposed airport would require a conditional-use permit before it could be constructed. That would allow the county commissioners and the public to comment on and consider any proposed private airport on a case-by-case basis. But the commission approved the ordinance with a change that made private airports a permitted use, meaning they could be built “with no restrictions on size or extent of use,” the judgment said.

On Jan. 25, area residents and property owners Dave Konrad, Chad Blincoe, Chris Tuttle, Fred Cook and Misty Cook sued Camas County over the two state code violations that they alleged the county had committed in its process of passing the ordinance.

Elgee sided with the plaintiffs, writing in this ruling that “it can be fairly said here that both the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Commissioners ignored the county’s Comprehensive Plan in adopting its zoning ordinance amendments with respect to airports” and that “Camas County failed to include any recommended changes to the draft ordinance in the published notice.”

“The county showed a complete disregard for the property rights and well-being of the neighbors, and this sets that straight,” Worst said in an interview. “The county ignored the law and it ignored the neighbors’ concerns, and this confirms that.”

Elgee stressed that the remainder of the zoning ordinance that did not address private airports on AG-80 was not subject to the lawsuit or the decision.

Worst said he and the plaintiffs “will be watching very closely” to see what the county does with zoning of private airports on AG-80 in the future.

Camas County Attorney Matt Pember said the county was “disappointed in the judgment. We believe we followed all the proper procedures, but it’s something we can rectify.”

Pember said it’s “up in the air” how the county will proceed with the remanded portion of the zoning ordinance, and that he did not know whether the commission and P&Z would try to pass the same AG-80 zoning with proper noticing, or if the zoning itself would be changed. He said that as of Thursday morning he had yet to meet with county officials to discuss the matter.

“We’re kind of in limbo right now,” he said.

Camas County Commission Chairwoman Barb Cutler, the one remaining commissioner of the three who passed the zoning ordinance, said the commission and P&Z would address the matter soon, but that she did not know how it would be addressed.

“It seems like a little bit of it was a misunderstanding. I don’t see it as a major obstacle,” Cutler said. “We just need to get our procedures down.”

As of press time Thursday, Butlin and Grbic had not responded to multiple requests for comment. 

Original article can be found here:

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