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Disputed parcel's use headed to voters

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | March 22, 2023 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — After approving a measure to ask voters how a disputed parcel of land near the Bonner County Fairgrounds should be used, commissioners voted to rescind its engagement of a local engineering firm to plat the properties.

The measure, which would appear on the May 16 ballot, would ask voters whether they want the parcel used for a possible RV park or potential for a justice center complex.

"It's reasonable that this becomes an advisory question to the community of how to use a particular piece of land," Commissioner Asia Williams said in proposing the ballot measure.

Both the advisory vote and the decision to rescind its engagement of Sewell & Associates to plat the fairgrounds, something which has never been done, passed on a 2-1 vote.

Voting yes were Williams and Commission Chairman Steve Bradshaw. Voting no was Commissioner Luke Omodt.

In voting against the advisory vote, Omodt said his reading of state and county law placed that authority in the commissioners' hands. He questioned the impact the vote could have on the fairgrounds' efforts to become financially independent.

"This advisory ballot does not discuss the financial impact which would be potentially a negative fiscal impact because this reduces the amount of money that will be necessary to maintain the fairgrounds," Omodt said in explaining why he was voting no. "Part of the reason why is if I was to put something like this or advocate for it or vote for it, my advisory vote would be: Are you willing in this economic environment to vote yes on a $100 million building in 2023."

While some have questioned why it matters, when all of the property is county land, she contended that wouldn't be the case if the property were used for a fairgrounds RV camp.

"There are ties to the state government with respect to fair property," Williams said. "And so that's why we have to do our due diligence when we're talking about what we're going to do with this piece of land."

The land has been the subject of strong debate and strife, both among county officials and the community.

Some, including Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler, contend the property has always been earmarked as the site for future expansion of the sheriff's complex to include a justice center. Others, including former county commissioner Dan McDonald, contend the property belongs to the county and there have never been any plans to set the property aside for that use.

Several spoke out for putting how to use the parcel on the ballot and against the parcel being used for an RV park. They questioned the need for a campground and said the county's explosive growth over the past few years makes it even more imperative that it be preserved for a justice complex.

"I mean, come on, law enforcement or campground, let's be realistic," resident Theresa Heisener said via Zoom.

Others said using the parcel for RV campsites was a bad idea for something limited in use, and preventing the county from being able to afford the purchase of a similar site down the road.

Putting the matter to a vote only makes sense, resident Wayne Martin said.

"That would give you an idea of what the citizens of Bonner County would like," Martin added.

Omodt said he had been approached by many in the county, saying the land is county property and saying they supported the decision to plat the land. That way, he said, regardless of how the property is used, it will be properly recorded.

Williams said it didn't make sense to her to spend $25,000 to plat the land, especially after the contested parcel — commonly used for overflow parking during the Bonner County Fair — would be going to voters to give their two cents on how it should be used.

"This piece of land is to be clear, it doesn't belong to the sheriff, it has been identified as an expansion option that would be the least impactful to the county," Williams said. "And so my recommendation and with the support of Bonner County Republican Central Committee is to put this as an advisory question, to see what the community wants."

Before voting in support of both measures, Bradshaw said he would support the measure being placed on the ballot but warned them it could come at the cost of a $473,315 Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation grant to help create an RV park at the site.

"The timeline on the grant for that will probably not make that grant happen, which means that there will be no extra revenue coming into the fairgrounds, which means whatever they do will be coming out of all of your pockets and every other taxpayer in Bonner County," Bradshaw said. "What the RV park would generate would make the fairgrounds more self-sufficient, which means less money coming out of your pocket."

County Clerk Mike Rosedale encouraged the commission to approve putting the measure on the May ballot, saying it was "pretty empty" at the moment.

"There's absolutely no downside to putting it on [the ballot]," Rosedale said. "And then you will have a very high level of comfort knowing what actually everybody would like. So I would suggest you do that. It's a no-lose, it's a win-win, and you would all look awesome for asking everybody."