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County Commissioners unanimously adopt new Comp Plan!

County Commissioners take public comment on the Comp Plan and then deliberate the next night, voting unanimously to adopt the new Plan. 

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About 40 people came to Teton High School to submit comments to the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) on the new Comprehensive Plan that has been in the works for 2+ years now. First, Teton County Planning Administrator Angie Rutherford spoke as the official “applicant” for the new Plan. She reviewed the origins and extensive history of the Plan, beginning with the original formation of the Plan For Planning citizen committee. She then highlighted many of the public compromises that have gone into the Plan. To compromise with large landowners: (1) 60-acre zoning is gone, (2) 1/2 mile scenic corridor removed, (3) The word "preserved" in the Agricultural vision statement was changed to "nurture and enhance, (4) Family lot splits remained to assist farmers. The County also compromised with the cities regarding where commercial uses should be contained. Rutherford then recommended that the Comp Plan be adopted as drafted. 

Comments from Fall River Rural Electric Cooperative……

A representative from Fall River Rural Electric Cooperative expressed concern regarding Fall River’s investment in electrical infrastructure for subdivisions. During the boom, Fall River extended over 1.5M in electrical distribution systems throughout Teton County in anticipation of the housing that would follow. These subdivisions now lie vacant, and Fall River has been unable to recover its initial investment. If costs cannot be recovered over a reasonable timeline, Fall River will have to recover these costs through user rates. In addition, many incomplete subdivisions also have electrical “backbone” infrastructure installed partially at the expense of Fall River. If any of these developments are vacated, these investments will be “stranded” and costs need to be recovered for retirement of these electrical facilities.

Public testimony….

In general the public testimony in support of the plan followed common themes. The seven individuals who spoke in support thought the overall process had been fair and that the Plan was the product of compromise within the community. They did not think the process should continue longer because 2.5 years was enough and spending additional time and money would not result in any different outcomes and would further divide the community. One spoke about how the new Plan was part of the impetus for moving his business to Teton Valley. Several called on the BOCC to be proactive in protecting Teton Valley’s sense of place and not allowing community resources to be spread thin.

Three individuals spoke neutrally about the plan, expressing very different opinions. One cited how the plan had divided families who are no longer speaking to each other and asked that the plan be tabled so the struggling economy could improve and heated emotions could cool down. Another inquired as to how a truly fair and equitable plan could be implemented when there are property owners who do not want any regulations for their land. The third speaker asked specific questions about how the ordinance writing phase of the process would be administered, and how the process would be kept open and transparent.

The public testimony from the 11 individuals who spoke in opposition to the Plan also followed common themes. Many asked for the Plan to be tabled because not enough time and public comment had gone into the current draft. They were tired of the bitterness and the divide and felt that taking more time would heal the rift in the community. Some felt that the Plan amounted to an unconstitutional taking of property and the county has no legal authority to pass the Plan. Many felt that the concerns of large landowners had not been addressed and that the Plan was drafted by special interest groups and those who do not own land in the valley. A few expressed objections to having any kind of Plan and argued that the Plan was a part of the greater United Nations Agenda 21.

VARD's testimony….

VARD’s executive director Stacey Frisk spoke on behalf of the VARD staff and board and endorsed the new Plan in its entirety. She outlined how the old Comp Plan did not guide Teton County in a positive direction. The new Plan is an opportunity to move forward. No language in the Plan was adopted casually; every word was reviewed repeatedly by several members of the community and passed unanimously through P&Z.   

The County Planning Administrator’s Response to Public Comment

In response to the comments and questions received, Ms. Rutherford then offered the following clarifications and rebuttal:

  • Teton County was awarded a grant in a consortium with other counties.  From this grant, $313,000 of federal funds has been directed towards Teton County and the 3 cities to write a new code. The consortium has hired Code Studios out of Austin, Texas to write the code. They have already made one visit to Teton County with many more to come. The community is expected to stay involved in this process.
  • In response to complaints about the overall process, Rutherford replied that the county did everything possible to get everyone in the community involved. Short of going door to door and every house in the county, every effort was made to reach as many people as possible.     

The comment period was then officially closed. The hearing was over by 7pm.

**What happened at the deliberations the next night**

The next night, the BOCC gathered in the commissioners’ meeting room at the County Courthouse to deliberate on the plan. There were about 15 members of the public in attendance. First, the commissioners addressed the bright orange, anonymous Agenda 21 fliers left on all the seats in the room. Chairman Kathy Rinaldi said the fliers would not be admitted into the public record because the county does not accept anonymous comment and the comment period has closed the previous evening. Some members of the public in the crowed grumbled that this was undemocratic. Rinaldi replied, “There must be civility in discourse.” 

The Commissioners’ general comments on the Plan……

Commissioner Benedict remarked he had heard no reference to a  specific page number or aspect of the Plan at the previous night’s hearing, mostly just philosophical testimony. Thus, he felt that each commissioner should give their general opinion about the Plan and whether they support it or not.

Chairman Rinaldi: Chairman Rinaldi stated that she generally agreed with the Plan and enumerated on all the outreach and the special efforts to reach groups that felt like they weren’t being heard in the process including the 3 nights of outreach to agricultural land owners. Said Rinaldi, “Short of going door to door and sitting in people’s kitchens, I don’t know what else could have been done to reach people.”

Commissioner Park: Commissioner Park stated that he too supported the Plan and saw the give and take in the document. He did express concern that outside influences could alter the writing of the zoning code, and, “If there are outsiders trying to influence county staff, then they should be let go.” He was tired of the bickering and the fighting, and thought that some of the public has a misperception that there is an alternate agenda with the Plan. He did feel strongly that individuals who have expressed opposition and concern for the plan at the previous night’s hearing should be the ones that get listened to when the code writers come to Teton Valley. He then opined that special interest groups and their members such as VARD should not be allowed to participate in the drafting of the new zoning ordinances because the Plan should be for the people and by the people. If any P&Z member or county staffer is swayed by these special interest people, Park said he would fire them. Park also wanted to see better representation from the high school and the Hispanic community in participating in the code write process.

Commissioner Benedict: Commissioner Benedict agreed that there had been a lot of give and take. He objected to Park’s comments about firing staff. Benedict pointed out that the county had received five legal letters from an anonymous property rights group who hired an attorney; so using Park’s logic, the county should not take those comments either. He felt like there had been no transparency from this anonymous group, and no way to determine where they are from.  “At least people who spoke from VARD live in our valley.” Referencing the staff, contractors, and people who have volunteered throughout the process, Benedict said he did not see the undue influence. The one specific public comment that Benedict did want to respond to was the objection that the County should take more time with the Plan. He felt that as the Plan had progressed for 2+ years, he had seen the community become more divided as time passed.

Specific changes made to the Plan…..

For the most part, no significant changes were made to this draft of the Plan, which was unanimously passed by P&Z back in July. Commissioners Benedict and Rinaldi did have several grammatical and technical corrections that they wanted to see added to the Plan, but none amounted to substantive changes. 

The Commissioners’ final response to objections by the public…..

As deliberations were winding down, some members of the audience then began to voice their consternation that their objections to the comp plan (which they expressed at the previous night’s hearing) had not been addressed. After a little bit of tussle and confusion, the BOCC decided that before calling a vote, they would formally address public’s objections that were voiced the previous night:

Commissioner Benedict: Offering to speak first, Benedict pointed out that he had reviewed every comment that had come in through the process including the P&Z hearing and meeting minutes, and his response was based on reviewing all of the comments. Being the consummate engineer, Benedict outlined his response into three categories:

  • Wildlife overlay: As to objections to the wildlife overlays, he pointed out that Teton County relies on the Idaho Department of Fish & Game to provide the technical expertise on what is important for local wildlife, and it is the county’s responsibility to plan for protection of habitat on private property. IDFG had provided the county with a 20+ page letter which highlighted the critical habitat found on private property in the county. 
  • Taking more time: He cited the 2+ year effort with what he considered to be a huge volunteer group with a wide variety of opinions. “Ironically, at first when the comp plan process began, people demanded why it would take so long!”
  • Fairness: To those who complained that the Plan wasn’t fair, Benedict replied, “We did our best to do what is best for the valley and honor all viewpoints. I feel like the divisions and rhetoric that has gone around the valley has gotten too personal and has gotten worse lately.”

Commissioner Park: Park felt that, “The Comp Plan ad
ressed everything that we as natives and large landowners needed to get. I will say this, when that writers group comes in, I’d like to have all the people who participated and objected last night sit down with the code writers group and hear their objections and questions.” He then apologized to the VARD staff for his earlier comments, but added that he did not want VARD participating in the public process, but rather, to participate as their individual selves.  He again emphasized the need for representatives from the Hispanic community and the High School to participate. He also felt strongly that the people got up and spoke their mind at the previous night’s hearings needed to have a voice and be heard by the code writers.

Chairman Rinaldi: Chairman Rinaldi expressed frustration that some people did not want any Plan which she felt was simply not possible under Idaho law. She was disappointed by the misinformation surrounding the Plan which she felt did not take private property. She recalled her involvement in the 2004 Comp Plan process where, in her opinion, it was not a grassroots effort. She felt that the work of the citizen committees at that time had been gutted by the county commissioners. “Back in 2004, I vowed to myself that it would be different next time around.”  She felt like this time, the County had achieved a grassroots process,  and to those who still felt like the process had not been fair, “Short of sitting down with every single county resident in their kitchen, I don’t know what else we could have done.” There were some rumblings in the audience at this point to which Rinaldi countered, "No one but the large landowners got a special meeting. Business owners didn’t get a special meeting. Only the large landowners had special meetings held for them – and we did not turn anyone down from participating on subcommittees. That’s a fact. It’s true. You might not want to hear that, but it’s true."

And finally  – THE VOTE!

Chairman Rinaldi moved to adopt the new Plan, and all three commissioners voted unanimously in support.

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