Bonner County mulls 40-foot setback

News editor | October 22, 2020 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — Bonner County's 40-foot waterfront setback standard, which is widely considered to be an important bulwark in protecting water quality, could be changing.

The Bonner County Planning Department advised the Idaho Lakes Commission on Tuesday that it is being asked by county commissioners to evaluate the buffer zone meant to be free of land use development.

"Commissioners wanted us to look into to what, if any, uses could be allowed within the 40-foot setback in a way that would be ecologically sound," said planner Jason Johnson.

Landowners are technically not allowed to put structures within the buffer zone, although they can seek variances from the design standard.

If the county does decide to shrink or expand the zone, it would be the subject of a comprehensive land use plan code amendment.

"We’re so early on in this process that the official comment period hasn’t even opened yet," Johnson told the lakes commission.

Johnson said the county is reaching out to stakeholders ahead of time in order to ensure their remarks can be evaluated and folded into the comp plan amendment if need be.

Johnson said there's been enough turnover in the department, making it unclear what the basis is for the buffer is or whether it's even justified.

Johnson added that there is ambiguity in the current code, which encourages landowners to opt for native vegetation to limit nutrient loading that can be caused by lawns which extend to the shore of Lake Pend Oreille or the Pend Oreille River.

"The vegetative buffer is something we have had a hard time working off (of). The code wants something, but the code doesn’t necessary always go far enough to allow us to achieve that something that it wants," said Johnson.

The prospective code change received a lukewarm welcome from the lakes commission, which has been supportive of the 40-foot setback and guidance aimed at reducing nutrient loading.

Commissioner Linda Mitchell asked Johnson if the county had an idea on how far the protective band should extend.

"As far as any specific distance goes, we’re not thinking of any distance at this point," Johnson answered.

"Our utmost concern has to be about water quality. In any way allowing these buildings to be closer is going to affect water quality," said Mitchell.

Ford Elsaesser, the lake's commission's chairman, said runoff concerns will always persist.

"We all can see the increased square footage and footprint of houses and related structures along the lake and particularly along the Pend Oreille River, which has so much of that level building area," said Elsaesser. "A concern about runoff into the lake as a result of those improvements is something that really concerns us."

Keith Kinnaird can be reached at or followed on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.