By DAVID GUNTER
SANDPOINT — It would seem easy, on the face of it, to extrapolate the community’s wishes for the future of the 77-acre University of Idaho Agricultural Extension property on North Boyer.
After all, the city has conducted workshops, public meetings and surveys on the issue since the university announced plans to sell the land last fall. In the most recent bout of public input, different visions were flown — from using the acreage for pure recreation, to various densities of housing development, right on up to a hybrid mix of commercial and residential building on the spot.
At the initial public workshop held last September, before more concise development options had been crafted, attendees placed their votes by sticking gold-colored coins on the direction they most favored. The majority — 54 percent — said parks and recreation was the way to go, followed by housing and education at 11 percent each.
At a pair of studio open house sessions held this past week, people were asked to do the same with sticky notes bearing their comments on the option they’d like to see move forward. This time, the selection had been narrowed to a series of artist renderings on easels reflecting the various concepts.
The recreation-centric proposal was blanketed in sticky notes, while lower-density housing surrounding public space had fewer than half as many such “votes” and the higher density, mixed use easel bore only a handful.
In another outreach effort, the city promoted an online survey to get a feel for public sentiment on the proposal. While more nuanced than the simple maps and list of categories used at the meetings and workshops, the survey also tilts hard toward creating a matrix of trails and public green spaces and shows an equally high aversion to developing singe-family homes, apartments, condominiums or retail on the land.
On March 6, the city will present its menu of option to the LOR Foundation in hopes of receiving a roughly $4 million grant to secure the property from the U of I before it starts marketing the real estate in May. According to City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton, the opportunity to thread that needle and potentially get funding for the purchase means that the LOR presentation will be directional, not specific, in nature.
“That’s the challenge,” she said. “The University of Idaho has their timeline and it’s pretty tight for something as large as this.”
Once the city owns the land, she added, the process of drilling down into what the public wants to see happen there can begin in earnest. It’s a chance to create a community vision and control the development timeline, Stapleton explained.
“The (LOR) proposal is really around shifting the property into public ownership so we can start that public vetting process,” the city administrator said.
David Reseska has been a strong proponent of recreational use for the acreage since the first workshop took place. As a volunteer groomer for the Nordic skiing trail system there, he has been lobbying for fellow outdoor enthusiasts to make themselves heard in the public information gathering process.
“It has gained a lot of momentum from people just talking, so we’ll see where it goes,” he said.
Whether reflective of wider public sentiment or just another example of democracy being driven by those who bother to get off their butts and take part, the message that has been delivered to date mirrors Reseska’s own — keep it open and keep it public.
Why then, he wonders, does the mixed-use, higher density proposal keep cropping up for public input when it appears to be so unpopular? It’s almost as if it were the zombie option that won’t be killed off, despite its distinct lack of favor. Furthermore, he’s concerned that LOR might pass on funding the purchase if it gets the impression that too little public space might be included as part of the final development plan.
“If the whole deal falls through — which is my greatest fear — and LOR doesn’t approve it, this all goes out to any buyer in May,” said Reseska.
“I see this becoming our Central Park, with bike paths along Sand Creek, picnic areas and a recreation center, as opposed to shopping malls and high-density development,” he went on.
For its part, the LOR Foundation might not be as black-and-white in its granting process as “open space, yes” or “development, no.” Leading up to the March 6 presentation, the foundation is playing things close to the vest.
“LOR is excited to hear from the city of Sandpoint and listen to the ideas they’ve gathered through their community outreach,” said Jeremy Grimm, former Sandpoint city planner and now program officer for the LOR Foundation.
The foundation holds out a mission of “enhancing livability” in rural communities, but paints with broad brush strokes on what that might mean in any particular case. In language provided by LOR’s media officer, it states that “the LOR Foundation is founded on the idea that small, rural communities ought to have the resources, tools, and support they need to create thriving, beautiful places to live and that a philanthropic force can be a catalyst for self-determined, community-led solutions to problems that mutually support social, economic, and environmental wellbeing.”
To the question of whether one plan might win favor in the granting process while another might scuttle it completely, the statement offered: “The LOR Foundation strives to be a regional resource and co-creator of solutions to problems that the community itself identifies.”
Fair enough. So back to that hybrid use option of commercial, residential and a smaller recreational presence on the site — if community input to this point shows very little enthusiasm for such an outcome, why keep it in the mix at all?
According to Stapleton, it’s being kept on the table as a way to steer development should grant funding fall through. Although there are limits to what the city could ask of a private developer, zoning could be one tool — especially the use of “contractual zoning,” where the developer would be required to retain at least some public space in the building plans.
“It’s a way of using our influence as much as possible,” Stapleton said. “If we can’t secure the property and ensure the community’s vision, that’s our Plan B.”
Lest the cart get before the horse, the city is keeping its focus on the March 6 grant presentation, sharing the information it has gathered and hoping that the $4 million comes through. And while all options are on the table, one inescapable data point eclipses all others: Those who took part in the information-gathering process envision a green space hub where bike trails might connect Sandpoint to adjoining communities, trails welcome hikers, skiers and bikers and access to Sand Creek is unimpeded by development.
“At the end of the day, there’s been a lot of feedback around there being a significant amount of space for open recreation,” said Stapleton.
Aaron Qualls, planning and economic development director for the City of Sandpoint, credits the small window of opportunity created by the chance to buy the land and the pending funding presentation for energizing public discourse. Whether the topic is trail connectivity, open public space or some type of recreation center — the YMCA already has expressed an interest in a presence here, for instance — this property that was long moribund and which now sits in the balance has people talking.
“There’s a lot of synergy and it’s bringing all of these conversations together,” Qualls said. “One of the biggest takeaways to the LOR Foundation is that the community really cares about the future of this property.”
Reseska, meanwhile, believes the process might be moving too quickly, stampeding the city into zoning and comprehensive plan changes that, going forward, might not reflect the broader wishes of the community.
“I’m saying slow down — get the property and then work on the vision and develop this for decades to come,” he said. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity that’s teed up for protecting the entire property.”
With the U of I poised to market the 77 acres in May, slowing down might not be possible, according to city officials. But there is agreement on one point. The chance for a municipality to receive funding for a large tract of land and steer its future is rare, indeed.
“It’s historic,” said Qualls. “How often does 75-plus acres of contiguous property with waterfront access become available?”
“To have an open piece this large sitting in the center of town with all the opportunities that property provides — it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Stapleton agreed.
One that could disappear as easily as it appeared, should the land end up with a private developer.
“If it goes through the process of a highest bidder, the community vision could be lost,” said the city administrator.
“Gone forever, potentially,” the planning and economic development director added.
The city’s website has a wealth of information on the proposal and those wishing to add their input can still do so by taking part in the online survey at sandpointidaho.gov/uofi