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Trident sues Idaho over McCall swap rejection; asks for Land Board to reconsider alleging ‘bias’

A Boise firm that hoped to trade 26 square miles of land in and around McCall with the State of Idaho’s land endowment isn’t taking no for an answer.

The Idaho Department of Lands denied Trident’s application last month. It said, among other things, that the value of timberland it hoped to buy in North Idaho then trade was worth $292 million less than the McCall area land it wants to take possession of.

Yesterday, Trident took two separate actions in hopes it could reverse the decision, according to public records obtained by BoiseDev.

Trident sued for judicial review – asking a judge to step in while also asking that the Idaho Land Board hold a contested case hearing on its swap proposal. Along the way, Trident made a number of demands of both the state and a judge – and laid out what it says was bias among a member of the IDL staff.

Last month, the IDL said no to the swap proposal, which would have moved much of the highest-profile land around McCall into private control. Trident said it hoped to build unspecified housing and other facilities, expand Ponderosa State Park, and construct affordable housing. The land is part of Idaho’s Land Endowment, a bank of land held aside, primarily to provide funding for education.

[Full coverage: Trident Holdings Payette region proposal]

Judicial review

Payette Lake from Rotary Park in McCall. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

The developer went to court, asking a judge to throw out the Dept. of Lands’ decision through the judicial review process in Idaho’s Fourth Judicial District. Trident’s lawyers said the denial violated the constitutional procedure for the treatment of endowment lands, isn’t within the department’s statutory authority, used “unlawful procedure,” and was “arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion.”

Trident, through its attorneys, wants a judge to invalidate the decision and appoint an independent monitor while the department considers the application again.

Trident is also calling for a full appraisal of the McCall and N. Idaho timberlands. The petition calls for the cost of the appraisal to be split between taxpayers and Trident. Last month, in a letter to Gov. Brad Little, Trident principal Alec Williams said “(Trident) still seeks to pay for an appraisal of the Payette endowment lands.” Williams’ firm also wants the state to pay its legal costs.

“Trident’s primary intention continues to be good faith engagement and informal efforts toward mutually agreeable resolution,” Nicholas A. Warden with Bailey Glasser LLP wrote in a letter to Idaho Department of Lands Director Dustin Miller. “Trident was compelled -despite contrary intention – by the rapid approach of statutory deadlines to file a petition for judicial review in order to preserve all available rights and remedies.”

In a short statement to BoiseDev, the department said: “The Idaho Department of Lands stands by its analysis.“

Warden said Trident would ask the judge to cancel the request for judicial review if the department reconsiders its denial, or the Idaho Land Board takes up the contested case hearing.

Request for land board hearing

Alec Williams Trident McCall
Alec Williams. Via Bison Strategic

In a second, much lengthier document, Trident asks for the Idaho Land Board to pull back the denial of the swap and hold a so-called contested case hearing.

The letter from Trident to Miller making the request is short, but accuses the department of “substantial bias,” “peculiarities within the calculation underlying the denial,” and “recently uncovered evidence indicating preexisting and sustained bias against Trident’s request by those within the Department of Lands tasked with its assessment.”

The packet includes a series of documents laying out its case. The first is a letter written by Williams submitted on August 13, addressed to Gov. Little.

[Broad new group forms to find ‘solutions’ to land at center of Trident McCall-area land swap proposal]

It largely echoes earlier comments made by Williams and Trident to BoiseDev, while going into granular detail about its qualms with the department’s process and denial of the swap proposal.

Trident said it offered data to IDL about the swap proposal not included in its original application, and the department did not accept it. Trident did not say why the information was not contained in its initial application materials.

The letter to Little said IDL staff told Williams and his contractors during a July meeting that they “expressed concern regarding being seen with associates of (Trident) and was wary to meet in person.” It says staff members told the Trident team that they found a large gap in valuation between the McCall lands and N. Idaho timberlands.

The letter ended with Williams’ request for an appraisal to be paid for by Trident. It included a heavily commented version of the rejection letter laying out its side of the case and calling into question many points in the letter it did not agree with.

Before Williams’ letter to Little, a spokesperson for the governor backstopped IDL’s work on the proposal.

“The Idaho Department of Lands has an internal process for reviewing applications such as the one submitted by Trident,” spokesperson Marissa Morrison Hyer told said on August 10th. “In this instance, IDL determined that the proposal was not in the best interest of the endowment beneficiaries and denied the application.”

Purkiss’ comments

While the documents from attorneys with Bailey-Glasser never directly address the issue, the packet includes two exhibits that appear designed to back its claim of “preexisting and sustained bias.”

The first is a screenshot of a single page of public comments received by the McCall City Council, ahead of an initial public hearing on Trident’s idea last summer.

It includes a comment from Joshua Perkins, who lists a Boise address.

“Please don’t support trading public land,” the comment reads.

Purkiss is the Idaho Department of Lands’ Real Estate Services Bureau Chief and worked on the evaluation of the Trident swap proposal. At the time of the comment, Purkiss served as a lower-level staffer for IDL but was promoted to bureau chief after the resignation of previous chief Ryan Montoya earlier this year, according to documents available on the IDL website.

[‘Thought the idea was neat:’ Trident tried, failed to buy Brundage, build one of America’s largest resorts]

The second document by Trident lists Purkiss as a “river defender” on the members and partners page of Idaho Rivers United, one of a constellation of groups that came out against the Trident proposal. Purkiss’ name is one of more than 1,200 listed on the page. The document then shows a statement from Idaho Rivers United coming out against the proposal. Purkiss’ name is not listed on the board or staff pages for IRU.

IRU tells BoiseDev that the “river defender” title denotes an individual who donated between $100 and $250 to the organization.

BoiseDev asked IDL about Purkiss’ public comment when viewed with his role on the Trident land swap evaluation. The department’s spokesperson spoke in general terms about its process.

“Significant projects within the department are reviewed at multiple levels no matter the topic,” IDL Policy and Communication Chief Scott Phillips said. “A bureau chief won’t be the final set of eyes, especially on topics like this that might be controversial. They will rise to the level of that person’s boss or department administrator.”

Purkiss’ current boss is Jim Elbin, who then reports up to Bill Haagenson. Haagenson’s name appears on the letter to Trident, rejecting the proposal. Purkiss wrote a memo contained in the denial that established the department’s basis for the value of the McCall and N. Idaho timberland.

Additionally, Phillips said Idaho Land Board staff members also review projects like this.

“On many issues of public importance, before anything goes out the door, we will allow land board staff to review it. It’s a very common procedure.”

Don Day - BoiseDev editor
Don is the founder and publisher of BoiseDev. He is a National Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Stanford University John S. Knight Fellow. Contact him at [email protected].

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