It’s been 10 years and 16 days since the city of Bellevue approved annexation of about 100 acres as the first step toward creation of a subdivision initially known as Strahorn Meadows—a nod to one of the Wood River Valley’s first developers, Robert A. Strahorn.
But the land remains vacant and its development time frame is still uncertain.
At issue is the planned Strahorn subdivision, a proposed development of 47 home sites in Slaughterhouse Canyon, on the northeast side of the city. Seemingly near the finish line, the project is again stalled at City Hall.
A public hearing was scheduled before the City Council for Tuesday, Jan. 29, to move forward with the current phase in the process—approval of a planned-unit development and of a preliminary large-block plat, a map delineating how the land would be subdivided. The meeting was at the Bellevue Elementary School cafeteria to accommodate what was expected to be a large crowd.
Just after 6 p.m., Mayor Ned Burns called the meeting to order in front of an audience of 30-plus Bellevue residents. Following appointment of a new P&Z commissioner, Chris Johnson, and a unanimous vote to approve the mayor’s nomination of Mike Choat to the council seat vacated by Burns when he was elected mayor, the council made a motion to go into executive session to discuss potential litigation.
During the nearly 45-minute session, citizens in attendance talked among themselves, murmuring in small groups about what the session could be about and what the conclusion would mean for the city.
When Burns and the council members returned, a simple statement was given: The large-block plat had not been recorded with the Blaine County Recorder’s Office within the required 12-month time frame after it was submitted as part of an annexation agreement in 2013, making it “null and void.”
The audience left dismayed, as did the developer.
In an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express on Monday, Bellevue Community Development Director Diane Shay said she had done some digging and could not understand why the plat wasn’t filed with the Recorder’s Office until nearly two and a half years after it was submitted to the city.
Shay said the plat had already been resubmitted by the applicant with no proposed changes. Additionally, she said a P&Z meeting has been scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 21, at 6 p.m. for a public hearing regarding the plat. Following the P&Z’s decision, the large-block-plat proposal will go to the City Council for its approval. Residents will have the opportunity to voice their opinions at both meetings.
How did we get to this point?
The vote 10-plus years ago was quick. Then-Councilman Gene Ramsey made a motion to waive the full reading of the proposed Ordinance No. 2009-04, the motion was seconded by then-Councilman Larry Plott, the motion carried unanimously with four council members—Ramsey, Plott, Brett Gelskey and Tammy Eaton (now Tammy Davis)—voting in favor, and one councilman—Chris Koch—abstaining. Then-Mayor Jon Anderson proceeded with the third reading of the ordinance by title only, followed by a unanimous vote by the same four council members to adopt Ordinance No. 2009-04, annexing about 100 acres into the city on Jan. 22, 2009.
From the beginning, the development proposal received pushback and scrutiny. When the subdivision was first proposed to the Planning & Zoning Commission on Jan. 15, 2004, former Mayor Dennis Wright read a letter requesting the P&Z to look at the application with a critical eye in regard to potential impacts on the area east of the city.
“I can’t imagine a more stupid idea for the city of Bellevue,” Wright said at the P&Z meeting.
Following the annexation in 2009, the city, along with the rest of the country, was gripped by a recession.
“Any planned development of the Strahorn project was put on hold,” an applicant narrative submitted to the City Council dated Jan. 29, 2019, states. “To do so at that time would have flooded an already weak real estate market and decimated existing property values.”
By 2014, the project still wasn’t underway, and a federal court decision regarding Hailey and an annexation within its city limits left Bellevue in fear of exposure to lawsuits, leading the city to reassess its annexation fees with Strahorn. The decision to re-analyze the fees was also based on the elimination of the city’s 10-year, $32 million capital improvement plan.
“This factor has the most significant impact on the financial participation allocated to the Strahorn development,” wrote planning consultant Richard Caplan in a six-page analysis completed on April 30, 2014. The recommendation was that the Strahorn fee be reduced by $3.5 million, to a total of $1.6 million. The original annexation agreement was amended to reflect the change, but the city failed to hold a public hearing on the amendment, per city code.
The change in the fee price expected from the developer created the first of many steps in the Strahorn subdivision project that many Bellevue citizens questioned and disapproved of.
“The financial numbers that the city gave Caplan to use in the revised study grossly understated the impact to the city and overstated the value of the property already contributed by Strahorn,” Bellevue resident Tom Blanchard wrote in a letter to the editor published in the Idaho Mountain Express on Oct. 15, 2014.
Fast forward four years, when developer Jeff Pfaeffle submitted the first conditional-use permit for the first phase of the Strahorn development to the Planning & Zoning Commission, a step required by the city’s planned-unit-development criteria. Commissioners and attendees at the January 2018 meeting expressed concerns that the proposal fell short of what was originally offered, including that the developer be responsible for maintaining interior roads and all landscaping. Those concerns were addressed in a following P&Z meeting, at which Pfaeffle, engineer Jeff Loomis, of Galena Engineering, and attorney Jim Laski detailed the changes they made to the proposal in response to concerns voiced by the commissioners and citizens.
On March 14, 2018, the P&Z approved the conditional-use permit. On March 30, 2018, an appeal of the P&Z decision was filed by Steve Carlisle on behalf of the Citizens Committee for Responsible Fiscal Development, “an unincorporated association of affected property owners,” according to the group’s attorney, Jim Phillips.
The appeal centered around a 2004 traffic study paid for by Pfaeffle that was used to establish that the new subdivision would have no significant impact on neighboring streets. However, the study, done by Galena Engineering, evaluated a proposed 23 single-family-unit residential subdivision in Phase 1, which had evolved to a 47-lot subdivision by 2018. The study also only considered traffic flow and not the impact on the existing neighborhoods and the poor structure of the roads in the area that would be used at a much higher rate, the appellants said in their appeal to the P&Z’s decision.
The appeal was heard by the City Council, and the decision was to remand the conditional-use-permit application to the P&Z to re-evaluate it following a new traffic study being conducted at the expense of the applicant.
The traffic study was done over the summer and presented to the P&Z at a public hearing on Nov. 29, 2018. It led to the eventual reapproval of the conditional-use permit’s findings of fact, conclusions of law and decision, which were signed on Jan. 10.