Driggs staff members and officials have been put in the uncomfortable position of having to rezone a portion of land southwest of the airport and alerting the property owners that more development restrictions exist there than previously realized.
The issue at hand is that around a decade ago, after the expansion of the Driggs-Reed Memorial Airport, an engineering firm plotted an incorrect Runway Protection Zone Overlay, the area of land past the terminus of the runway. The zone has major development restrictions intended to maintain the safety of residents and structures on the ground. During some research earlier this spring, the Driggs planning department and airport board discovered the error and, after seeking guidance from the Federal Aviation Administration, brought a zoning map amendment to the planning and zoning commission on June 9.
Several of the affected property owners expressed their displeasure with and antipathy toward the rezone.
Jim Hartshorn said the problem preceded the RPZ error and stated the real issue was that the airport expanded and built a runway too close to private homes to begin with.
“A yes vote [to the rezone] means that long-time residents that have contributed to this community for years are subsidizing billionaires rolling in with their G7 jets,” Hartshorn told the P&Z.
Other owners have begun the process of seeking compensation from the city for the loss in value to their properties, although their applications won’t be reviewed until the rezone receives final approval from city council. Then the city will go through a takings analysis to determine the fiscal impact of the decision.
The existing homes in the corrected RPZ will not be demolished; instead, they’ll be considered “legal non-conforming uses,” and will not be allowed to expand. People who want to develop within the RPZ can seek an alternatives analysis through the FAA, and the city is taking the somewhat unusual step of requesting an alternatives analysis for the entire impacted area.
The airport master plan indicates that the runway will eventually be shifted north and east, which would resolve the issue of the RPZ for the affected properties, but the timeline for that is 2027-29. However, recent conversations with the FAA indicate that the shift could come as soon as 2025.
The P&Z commissioners were extremely reluctant to recommend approval of a rezone that they perceived would devalue around ten properties.
City attorney Stephen Zollinger explained to them that regardless of the rezone, the FAA, which has oversight of any development within a certain distance from the airport, would put restrictions on or deny building permits in the RPZ. The RPZ hasn’t seen any significant development in the past decade, or else the mistake would have been discovered sooner.
“Zoning is not what is creating the problem. The problem exists,” Zollinger said, adding that P&Z’s task was to correct the zoning map to allay some confusion and provide more information to current and prospective property owners.
“I definitely feel for all the property owners here,” said P&Z chair Grant Wilson. “If this was a [normal] zone change I’d deny it, but it seems like if someone tries to pull a building permit they’d be dealing with this whether or not we approve it.”
Still uncomfortable with recommending approval of the rezone, the commissioners instead voted unanimously to table the matter and await the apparently soon-to-be-released revised guidelines from the FAA about use provisions in runway zones.
The conversation on the RPZ had some carryover into the next application P&Z reviewed, a series of rezones on a 23-acre parcel south of LeGrand Pierre on the east side of Highway 33. Around 1.5 acres of the property is in the corrected RPZ, so the commissioners agreed not to address that part of the rezone. The applicant, Ryan Thueson, is under contract to buy the property from the Price family and said he intends to develop an automative and tire center, self-storage units, and medium density housing. He sought a rezone from the current commercial heavy, mixed industrial, and single-family residential zones to light industrial and multi-family residential zones.
Thueson told P&Z his goal was to offer more housing near downtown, and said that while the news about the RPZ had “drastically changed the plans,” he and his team could adapt to the change.
Zollinger, speaking as a private individual rather than the city attorney, offered his endorsement, saying he had worked with the developer’s family in Rexburg. “The Thuesons are responsible stewards in the city and have facilitated responsible growth while being cognizant and respectful of adjacent residential uses,” he said.
The commission voted to recommend approval of the rezones. The city council will hold a public hearing on the Thueson rezone application on July 6 and make the deciding vote.