Sunday, December 03, 2023

Vote on disputed parcel nixed

Staff Writer | March 28, 2023 1:00 AM

There won't be an advisory vote on what to do with a piece of county land adjacent to the fairgrounds after all.

In yet another twist to the saga, the commission voted 2-1 to abandon the advisory vote and to revisit a 2014 memorandum of understanding that the property was to be "made available exclusively for parking use" by the Bonner County Fair Board.

Commissioners Luke Omodt and Steve Bradshaw voted in support of the motion. Commissioner Asia Williams voted against it.

Omodt said he made the motion to pull back from the advisory vote after finding the MOU while working on language for the advisory ballot. That agreement seemed to settle the questions which prompted the latest controversy over the site.

"What I would present to you is that we don't need an advisory ballot because this, for the last 10 years, has been designated by a legal memorandum on file with the county," Omodt told Bradshaw. "In addition, it says the decision regarding placement of RV park on current fairgrounds designated property. This property is currently designated fairgrounds property according to this memorandum dated May 27, 2014."

The agreement identifies the parcel at the center of the dispute as county-owned real property that is to be made available for parking by the fair board. The MOU, which was dated May 27, 2014, was to be utilized exclusively by the fair board until further notice.

Omodt said he also discovered Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation grant documentation which identified the same parcel as the one to be used. A 2019 application for the first phase of the grant also showed that the same parcel, with a measure on the issue approved by both the fair board and BOCC in 2020. The application for a $473,315 IDPR grant in 2022 also shows the same parcel.

However, Williams said a past board cannot bind a future board, which allows the board to hold the vote and move the RV campground onto an undisputed site that is already part of the fairgrounds. If his request had been to continue using the site merely as a parking lot, that would be one thing. However, binding the county to construction of the RV park is inappropriate when there is an alternative supported by all sides.

"The fairground has repeatedly asked this board to step out of this issue, allow them to place their RV campground where they want to on their property," Williams said.

She urged her fellow commissioners to continue forward with the advisory vote, noting it was not binding but did help them hear directly from the community on how they want the parcel used. It also would save the county from the "exorbitant amount of cost" of having to buy another parcel when the time comes to build a justice center.

"So if we're going to be good stewards of taxpayer money, we have to look at a plan in the future," she said. "And so this is reasonable that it's used as a parking lot because it's something that can be undone when it needs to be done."

Instead, she said her fellow commissioners were engaged in a personal dispute with Sheriff Daryl Wheeler instead of focusing on what is best for the fair board, the public and the county.

"But the community cannot afford this decision. And that should take precedence over any individual issues that you have," she told Bradshaw. "Because if you vote to put a campground on that section, you owe it to me as a taxpayer in the community. Tell me, where are we going to expand? How are we going to afford it? And how are you not setting us backward decades because the price of land is ridiculously high?"

Omodt said the issue was extensively researched by former Bonner County Fair Director Darcey Smith before she passed away in 2022. And, he contended, his research found plenty of room on the existing sheriff's complex site for the proposed justice center.

"There's about 8 acres there, Commissioner Williams, you could actually do both," Omodt said after a brief tense exchange with his fellow commissioner. "And that would be my plan, that we serve both the justice center and the fairgrounds. I don't see this as an either/or, this is not a lose/lose."

Wheeler said the intent of past boards was for the site to be used for parking, not for expansion of the fairgrounds. He said past commissioners indicated support for putting a justice center, which includes the jail, on the jail complex site and the disputed parcel.

"I never said that was not county property," Wheeler said. "I said it was designated through all of the other commissioners as property to develop a justice center."

While he supports the idea of a justice center, Bradshaw said new information came to light over the past week, prompting him to take another look at the issue.

"My job is to make our dollars go as far as they can and if I can reduce the amount of money that taxpayers have to spend, I will find a way to do that, without cutting services," Bradshaw said. "Like I said before, all county property is county property, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Board of Commissioners."

The move to halt the advisory ballot — and use of the disputed parcel for an RV campground — drew sharp criticism from several residents who attended the special Monday meeting. Not only is it not what many want, placing the RV campground on the site, with the idea they would tear it out if, down the road, is wrong.

"It is not in the best interest of us," resident Monica Gunter said, her voice rising with emotion. "People want this campground 100% We're not saying don't put it in a campground, we're saying move it over so we never have to plow the thing under. It's simple."

Like Gunter, several others rebuked the board for pulling back from the advisory vote, saying it didn't hurt for the board to hear from those it is charged with serving.

Speaking for the Bonner County Republican Central Committee, Dan Rose warned the board that using public dollars for private use is problematic — as is competing against the private sector.

"And if you put pavement on it, it'll be forever parking lot," Rose said. "You keep the resolution, and it's always parking for both fairgrounds and justice complex. It never changes, but it never gets compromised. That is what appears to be the most logical thing that satisfies everybody in this room. It satisfies the fair board people, it satisfies the RV people. It satisfies the justice center people. What is so difficult about this decision? To confuse use of land and ownership of land is something that I'm hearing here in the request that we don't need an advisory ballot question."

At least one resident expressed concern that waiting could put the IDPR grant at risk.

"But I guess for me, the bottom line is, commissioners, you have a fiduciary duty to people in this county for fiscal responsibility," resident Mark Linscott said. "My concern when I hear this grant of $474,000 and it's only gonna cost the county $25,000 … that's a hell of a great return. I just don't want to lose that."

Bradshaw said the board could ask for an extension. However, he said that without one, the county needs to begin work on the grant by June — or risk losing the funds.

Putting an advisory vote on the May ballot seems rushed and would "be in great error," Linscott said. He said trying to meet the 5 p.m. Monday deadline wouldn't allow the BOCC to hear from the entire fair board.

"In all due respect, objective is one thing," he told the board. "There's a lot of propaganda going out there. And if you control the narrative, you control how the vote is gonna go. All it's going to be is mud-slinging, it's going to be even more divisive and it's non-binding."

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