Challenges still clog Spirit Lake moratorium

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SPIRIT LAKE — Spirit Lake's moratorium on sewer hookups is expected to hit its two-year mark before being lifted.

In the meantime, quite a bit of stink has been raised surrounding the sewer capacity situation.

"We've been told from the engineers that it's looking like late summer or early fall for a completion date on the new pond," said Mayor Renee Eastman, referring to the sewer improvement project that will temporarily relieve the city from capacity issues.

"At that point, we'll be ready to accept more effluent to lift the moratorium. We can't afford to allow building until the pond is 100 percent in operation."

Eleven companies submitted bids for the improvement project. The City Council on March 12 will consider the lowest bid of $1.39 million from MCM Construction of Hayden.

City voters last year approved funding for the project.

The sewer situation has become a hot-button issue on multiple fronts.

Two separate property owners recently requested a total of 40 acres off Nash Road in the northwest part of the city to be de-annexed because of the murky outlook of being able to build on the sites.

"Even with the building of the pond, we will still not have enough capacity to cover every site that's buildable in the city," Eastman said. "(The pond) is just our quick fix."

City officials debated on those de-annex requests — and somewhat reluctantly agreed to them — because it will lose tax revenue when those sites are developed, Eastman said.

"There's a loss of revenue of taxes on those parcels, but the bigger picture is that it's less sewer hookups for a system that is already taxed," she said. "Until we fix the main issue of sewer and its capacity, it's negligent to have more property when you can't cover the (buildable lots) you already have."

About 530 buildable lots inside the city have not been developed.

Other property issues popped up with the sewer situation.

A limited liability corporation pursuing an RV park in Spirit Lake filed suit in First District Court last month against Eastman and the city for not allowing the site plan to enter the city's public review process.

Judge John Mitchell ruled in favor of the LLC after the city's attorney, because of an oversight, didn't attend the recent court hearing.

While the moratorium prohibits the city from accepting building permit requests requiring sewer connections, it does not prevent site plans that do not require building permits from entering the city's review and approval process, the suit filed by Hinz Property Group stated.

The suit accused Eastman of blocking the RV park proposal because the site is near her home, but Eastman said the city was doing what it was told legally to do under the moratorium.

"We were told not to accept building permits and site plan reviews because they are one and the same," she said. "I can't and won't change what has taken place. That's not my job. My job is to follow the rules.

"They are not the only ones wanting to build so I understand their frustration."

The city is currently performing sewer and water rate studies to determine if there will be increases, and, if so, how much those should be. The rates are currently $15 per month for water and $26 for sewer.

Audit ahead

Meanwhile, the council on March 12 will also consider a contract with Eide Bailly of Spokane to perform a forensic audit on the city's finances.

An estimated $500,000 to $600,000 is unaccounted for over several years in the sewer account — prior to when Eastman was elected mayor in November 2017, she said. She said it’s too early to say whether there was any criminal activity or if the funds were misappropriated.

Eastman said the city is trying to become better at planning.

"We've implemented a system so that when the moratorium is lifted, we'll be able to keep track of the number of homes with the click of a mouse," she said. "It will be watched closely. We have to be better guardians for the citizens of Spirit Lake so the people don't have to keep paying for the mistakes."

Since the last improvement to the city's wastewater treatment facility in 2002, the population has grown 57 percent, according to city officials.

The wastewater facility is a land-based system in which, after treatment, the effluent is irrigated onto agriculture fields and forest crops.

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