By Soncirey Mitchell
In a special public hearing Sept. 27, Sandpoint City Council members voted to approve two requests from the Bonner County commissioners to rezone portions of the Bonner County Fairgrounds and the adjacent Sheriff’s Office Readiness Center.
Commissioner Luke Omodt gave testimony on behalf of the county, with Sheriff Daryl Wheeler providing the opposing arguments during the public comment portion.
The first application sought to rezone one parcel of approximately .3 acres in the southeast corner of the fairgrounds property from Rural Residential-1 to Mixed Use Residential. MUR is classified as a commercial zoning district and therefore allows for the development of multi- and single-family housing, as well as larger facilities such as grocery stores, schools, churches and community recreation centers.
The second — and more controversial — request was to rezone a 2.2-acre parcel west of the Sheriff’s Office facility from MUR to RR-1, which allows for single-family dwellings, fairground facilities and even police and fire stations under certain conditions.
Despite the residential uses that could potentially be allowed under the new zones, Omodt underscored that the county’s priority would be toward economic development to benefit the fairgrounds and the community at large.
“Bonner County is not in the business of building homes,” he said, adding that county government’s obligations run toward the highest and best use of taxpayer dollars, and “one of them is the maintenance of the fairgrounds. … I see no immediate future for Bonner County to go into property development.”
The Sandpoint Planning and Zoning Commission recommended in July that the city approve the rezoning, as the current and future uses for the property — as stipulated in the Comprehensive Plan submitted by the applicant — aligned with the MUR zoning requirements.
Sheriff Daryl Wheeler has long opposed any zone changes at the fairgrounds, arguing that the parcels under consideration are intended for future expansion of the justice services complex to house the court house, jail, and various related offices.
Wheeler’s has been one of several competing plans put forward for the property since 2009, and has been in competition with the county’s alternative proposal to expand the current RV campground facilities — a proposal that for at least the past year has resulted in what Councilor Andy Groat and Wheeler both described as a “turf war” between Commissioners Steve Bradshaw and Omodt and the Sheriff’s Office. Commissioner Asia Williams has consistently supported Wheeler’s side of the argument.
Bonner County did not list the RV proposal as the reason for the rezone, but Wheeler told the City Council that his opposition to the move was rooted in state statute.
“Per Idaho Code [Section] 22-204, Luke Omodt lacks statutory authority to be the exclusive applicant for the proposed land-use. I.C. [Section] 22-204 requires that the county fair board be part of the fairgrounds-related land-use planning activities. Therefore, the county fair board is a necessary party to this application,” Wheeler said, alleging that the commissioners “illegally usurped the authority of the Bonner County Fair Board” by fronting the application without the input of the Fair Board — which he added did not support the rezone.
Zachary Jones, the city’s legal council, clarified that the commissioners are in fact the legal owners of the property and are therefore able to act without the Fair Board.
“The ground that the fair operaties on is Bonner County property. The ground that the Sheriff’s Office sits upon is Bonner County property,” said Omodt, referring to the Planning and Zoning Commission’s July 18 meeting, when it recommended denying the switch to RR-1 — a decision that Wheeler said was “because it did not fit the city’s Comprehensive Plan, may have unintended consequences and the County Fair Board should be consulted.”
Because RR-1 allows for lower density housing, reduced property value could be one such consequence, he argued.
Meanwhile, developers Little Sand Creek, LLC received an easement to construct a right-of-way west of the fairgrounds, eating up two acres on Samuelson Avenue previously used by the rodeo. Rezoning the 2.2 acres northwest of the justice center would help to mitigate that loss and ensure the Bonner County Fairgrounds’ year-round activities will be less affected, according to Omodt. He further emphasized that the commissioners’ priority is saving taxpayer money and boosting the county economy.
“For every dollar that is brought into our county, when people come and spend money in support of Sandpoint — whether they’re from Montana, whether they’re from Washington — that’s jobs, that is taxes, and that is what feeds families. One of [the proposed uses for the land] is an economic incubator and the other one is a field that lies fallow,” Omodt said.
Councilor Justin Dick moved to approve the rezone, explaining that it will benefit the current iteration of the fairgrounds. He deemed all future considerations irrelevant, as the parcel can be rezoned again if need be.
“Why not do the rezone now? It aligns the properties in which we’re looking at with the current occupants there, and I don’t find it to be any more or less restrictive 20 years down the road if these two groups [the fairgrounds and the readiness center] are not on this piece of property,” said Dick.
Groat seconded Dick’s motion to rezone, but voted nay.
“This is an old fashioned turf war and I would really appreciate that the city not be involved in this,” said Groat, alluding to the long-running tensions between the commissioners and the sheriff.
The motion carried, and the additional two motions to finalize the rezone passed unanimously.
Additional reporting by Zach Hagadone.
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