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Land use priorities collide in the Zoom economy

by SUSAN DRUMHELLER Contributing Writer
| February 28, 2021 1:00 AM

The “Zoom boom” economy has exploded in Bonner County — one of many western outdoorsy communities getting flooded with “amenity migrants” seeking a better and, for some, a more affordable place to live.

Newcomers are being encouraged to move here by groups like the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which is buying Google ads that ask: “Tired of never-ending taxes and regulation? Discover the free life in Idaho.”

In the past year, the county planning staff has processed more than 1,300 building location permits, over 100 minor land divisions, 18 text amendments to the zoning code, 10 comprehensive plan amendments, 12 zone changes, and more than 35 variances.

“It’s really overwhelming,” Planning Director Milton Ollerton told Bonner County commissioners at a recent planning workshop.

Managing this tsunami of applications is a relatively inexperienced staff that has been operating under a director recruited in 2015 to streamline land use laws in a county where “smart growth” — a planning philosophy that promotes concentrating density near urban services — is sometimes treated as a dirty word.

Meanwhile, volunteers from around the county have participated in committee meetings for months — some for almost four years — to develop neighborhood specific (“subarea”) land use plans that cover hundreds of square miles.

From Sagle to Selle Valley to Blanchard, the dominant theme of these plans is to protect the rural quality of life; preserving large parcels to protect traditional land uses, as well as wildlife habitat, water quality, dark skies and to keep traffic manageable and slower paced in rural areas.

“We like it the way it is,” said Fred Omodt, a blueberry farmer who chaired the Selle-Samuels Subarea Committee. “Once it’s gone, we don’t have it anymore.”

But when everyone wants to have their piece of paradise and land and housing is in short supply, how do you protect the qualities that are attracting people while providing streamlined development to meet the demand?

It’s a tough balancing act for the beleaguered planning staff and is starting to have real impacts around the community.

With over 100 new “minor land divisions” (a relaxed regulatory category that doesn’t follow subdivision standards) the pressure is growing on roads and fire districts to serve more homes popping up out in the woods. Now the county is looking at a special road levy and Northside Fire is looking to pass an impact fee on new growth.

Zeal to Deregulate

Good land use planning can help communities deal with runaway growth, planning experts say. It creates predictability for newcomers and neighbors alike, while protecting commonly held rights and values. It also keeps government services affordable and helps maintain a community’s character.

But land use regulations are often portrayed as interfering with private property rights, and a sympathetic Bonner County Commission has been actively working to reduce the expense and hassle to develop land.

Beginning 2016, the county began its effort to deregulate, first by firing Planning Director Clare Marley and her senior planner (both sued the county and settled out of court) and by recruiting a new director who would “demonstrate technical expertise in successfully achieving fewer regulations and less government,” according to the job announcement.

The county commissioners also stripped certain powers of approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission and prohibited the commission from postponing certain decisions for further study. Now-retired attorney Paul Vogel called the change “emasculating” the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission in his comments to the County Commissioners.

The changes prompted then-P&Z Commission Chairman Steve Temple to resign in protest and challenge them in District Court, contending the new rules were created outside the existing law. The judge ruled that because Temple was not personally harmed, he didn’t have standing to challenge the new ordinance.

“Expect bad code to proliferate,” Temple predicted in a guest editorial in the Bonner County Daily Bee at the time. “Some regulation and restraint is needed to reduce lawsuits between neighbors, have predictability in what we can do where and keep Bonner County beautiful.”

Land Division Made Simple

One of the early code changes was to exempt plats with 4 or fewer lots from following the county’s subdivision or short plat requirements. The change basically exempts those lots from following standards that ensure lots are buildable and accessible. The new “minor land division” is approved by the planning director alone, bypassing public input.

Minor land divisions also don’t need to be reviewed by Panhandle Health District (PHD) to ensure that septic systems can be permitted.

Marty Taylor, a former Bonner County planning director, warned the changes “sets Bonner County back 40 years to the time when plats constituted nothing more than a survey, resulting in substandard roads and unbuildable lots.”

Around the same time, the county removed the requirement for Building Location Permits (Bonner County’s version of a building permit) to first get approval for septic or sewer hook-up, over the objections of PHD, local sewer districts and local residents concerned about potential impacts to groundwater and surface water.

Now, some of these new lots are being purchased sight unseen and with no guarantees that they are buildable.

Since the new “minor land division” code was adopted, a few problems have cropped up, including substandard road access and the creation of lots that don’t have adequate soils or room for a drainfield.

Now the county is revisiting the subdivision ordinance, proposing to include more requirements on minor lands divisions to ensure adequate roads, septic approval for lots 2.5 acres or smaller, but at the same time, increasing the number of lots to be included in a minor land division from four up to 10. The divisions still would not include public input nor notification to neighbors.

When asked about the lack of public involvement, Ollerton said state statute does not require public involvement in subdivision approval; “These are the things that come out of the workshops with the P&Z commission and the board,” he said.

A public hearing on the revisions is scheduled for March 18 and written comments must be submitted a week in advance.

Another outcome of discussions with the board of county commissioners was direction to planning staff to revisit the requirement to maintain a vegetative buffer and the 40-foot setback for building on lakeshores — a provision meant to protect water quality and arrived at after several months of collaborative stakeholder meetings in 2008.

While no concrete changes have been publicly proposed, the prospect of revising rules for lakeside land use has heightened concern among residents that Bonner County is being loved to death through unchecked growth and development.

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Affordability Challenge

The insatiable demand for property, which is far outpacing supply, is also driving up real estate values and worsening the lack of affordable housing in the area.

A recent article in the New York Times about Californians moving to Idaho noted that the immigrants had a much bigger budget for housing than those in Boise: $738,000 to $494,000. The gap is likely significantly greater in Bonner County.

Even small homes in Sandpoint advertised as “affordable” exceed the budget of many locals.

In fact, Idaho leads the nation in real estate appreciation — with a 14-percent increase in housing prices in one year — according to U.S. News & World Report. Over the past five years, prices have increased 73 percent.

The county’s most innovative solution to the problem of affordable housing thus far was to lift the 120-day occupancy limit on recreational vehicles and to allow up to two recreational vehicles (RVs) and an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) on all properties over an acre in size. On less than an acre, one RV and ADU is allowed.

While most people agree that affordable housing is desperately needed, allowing the proliferation of RVs as permanent homes on lots throughout the county conflicts with density limits provided by current zoning.

Affordable housing was one of the key issues taken up by the Bonner Regional Team, a collaborative group of local community leaders and elected officials who began meeting in 2017 to discuss land use matters and related community issues.

Another priority topic was how to address the increasing wildfire threat in the “wildland urban interface,” those neighborhoods built in the woods all over Bonner County and on the edge of urban areas.

The county formally backed out of the BRT in 2019 after the commissioners received a request to do so from the Bonner County Republican Central Committee, which characterized the collaborative as a “direct assault on self-government.” Commissioner Steven Bradshaw described the collaborative process as “socialism” in his decision to back out.

Commissioner Jeff Connolly disagreed with his fellow commissioners and continued to attend BRT meetings until the BRT went dormant when it ran out of funds to pay a facilitator.

Susan Drumheller is a 30-year resident of North Idaho, a former Spokesman-Review reporter and a member of the board of Project 7B, a local non-profit with the mission to support land use planning based on locally shared values and aspirations. For information or to support Project 7B’s efforts to track land use planning and promote public involvement, go to www.project7B.org.