COEUR d'ALENE - The architectural design for a proposed 14-story residential building in downtown Coeur d'Alene got the green light Thursday from the city's Design Review Commission.
The commission's seven members unanimously approved the plan for the building, stating it meets all city guidelines and procedures. Prior to the commissioners' decision, they received a preview of the legal battle neighbors of the project have been promising to mount.
Harold Damiano, a 24-year resident of the Coeur d'Alene North condos to the north, testified that the commissioners have a duty to protect property rights and values. He pointed out that this duty is listed first in the city's code detailing the Design Review Commission's authority.
"I have no doubt in my mind that these folks have proposed a building that meets the design code. I have no doubt in my mind that it's a great building, but it's in the wrong place," Damiano said. "It's in the wrong place because it does affect property values."
Neighbors opposed to the project say the building will obstruct their views of Lake Coeur d'Alene, one of the reasons they say they purchased their properties.
Damiano told the commissioners the views will be completely blocked for 22 units, and as many as 50 more will be significantly affected.
Damiano stipulated that the commissioners' approval of the design, while acting on behalf of the city, constitutes an administrative action that will result in the taking of private property as defined under Idaho Code, which includes a compensation clause.
"If you (the commissioners) join hands with them in an administrative action, if you join hands, the city is liable if any compensation has to be paid, yes the city," Damiano said. "And we're not talking about dollars and pennies anymore. We're talking about a minimum buck of $5 million up to $10 million."
He compared it to a precedent-setting 1988 Idaho "takings case" involving Coeur d'Alene Garbage Service, a company owned at the time by Damiano, and the city of Coeur d'Alene. In that case, state Supreme Court justices ruled that the city could not, by annexation, take business, a property interest, away from Coeur d'Alene Garbage Service and give it to another service provider.
"You're talking about taking one high-rise view and giving it to another high-rise," Damiano told commissioners.
Damiano's testimony drew a round of applause from the roughly 45 members of the public who turned out for the commission meeting.
City attorney Warren Wilson said, following Damiano's testimony, that city staff and commission members asked him to attend the meeting because they were concerned "that maybe we would start to drift off of design criteria."
Wilson said city code specifically prohibits public comments on matters other than design. The matter of whether the action constitutes "a taking" is irrelevant to the design review panel, he said.
"We have obligations to everyone. We have to protect neighboring property rights. We have to protect the property rights of the developer. We can't just look to one side or the other," Wilson said.
The city's planning and building codes incorporate the city's property rights decisions, Wilson said. Those decisions were made seven years ago, he said, when the downtown design and zoning guides were revised, and addressed views and vistas. The city's obligation is to ensure design applications comply with city codes, Wilson said.
"If we try to hold up the developer, the developer has an honest to goodness chance to sue us for taking. Other than that, there is no taking. That's the bottom line," Wilson said.
Last month, Greg Hills, principal of the Colorado-based real estate development firm, Austin Lawrence Partners, said the company is prepared to handle a court case if one arises.
The commission's decision can be appealed to the city council, but the council, like design review, can only judge whether the proposal fits the city's building guidelines.
Following the meeting, Damiano said the neighbors plan to take the matter to court.