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Effort to close loopholes instead created one

by SUSAN DRUMHELLER Contributing Writer
| July 15, 2021 1:00 AM

In its efforts to tidy up and close loopholes in laws governing subdivisions, Bonner County Planning has left a hole large enough to drive an ACE Septic truck through.

Five years ago, the county created a new category of land divisions (minor land divisions) that can be approved by the planning director without any public review.

The revised law turned out to be fraught with problems, however, leading to recent proposed amendments to try to fix road and access issues, and to prevent landowners and developers from circumventing the more rigorous process for larger subdivisions.

The law also lacks any requirement that land divisions of any size get health district approval to make sure buyers of the property can install a septic system.

Bonner County, it turns out, holds the dubious distinction of being the only county in North Idaho – and perhaps the entire state – that does not mandate a health district review prior to configuring the subdivision lot lines.

And while septic systems must be permitted by the health district, the county does not require health district review before issuing building location permits.

“We don’t regulate septic systems,” said Commissioner Dan McDonald at a recent public hearing on the subdivision ordinance, to explain why the county takes a hands-off approach when it comes to ensuring developments have a means of disposing of wastewater.

Calling the health district, the “Panhandle Socialist Extortion Health District,” Commissioner Steve Bradshaw compared the district’s $400 site evaluation and $50 per year renewal fees to the practice of mobsters, saying; “I wouldn’t care if they got defunded into oblivion.”

But while county officials say they are trying to save builders and developers time and money, health district staff has confirmed that this is causing problems that has led to huge expense on the part of some unaware buyers.

The county is now proposing to require health district sign off for subdivisions with lots smaller than 2.5 acres, but problems can occur on larger lots due to soil that doesn’t percolate, or bedrock, or steep slopes or any number of complicating factors, a health district staff member said at a recent Planning and Zoning Commission hearing.

Bonner County is a buyer-beware county, where a land rush has newcomers purchasing property sight unseen. Under the new streamlined subdivision process, there is no guarantee that property is buildable. The health district is finding more people who either have to install an expensive “enhanced” system or purchase an easement from a neighbor for a drainfield.

“A huge percentage of our clients have never had to deal with septic systems ever in their entire life,” PHD’s Kathryn Kolberg told the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission during a public hearing in March.

“If not for easements, there would be a lot more parcels in this county that do not perc(olate),” she said, describing the expensive work-arounds to which buyers are resorting. “You have to have a place to put your wastewater and if you don’t plan for it you will get yourself into a pickle.”

Systems installed in areas that don’t have proper soil or topography could potentially degrade water quality of nearby lakes or groundwater, which the county is directed to protect from development activities by the county comprehensive land use plan.

After two public hearings and taking the health district testimony, the county’s volunteer Planning and Zoning Commission recommended that health district review be restored to ALL land divisions.

Planning Director Milton Ollerton resisted – saying the county commissioners would not support such a change. He was right.

McDonald said the proper point of review is at the building location permit stage – but that review is not required in Bonner County either. Kolberg testified that by the time she gets called, buildings are sometimes already under construction – limiting options even further.

Ollerton said this week that he was planning to meet with the health district to discuss “the PHD signoff and identify the best way to work together within the state guidelines."

Last year, the planning department approved about 250 minor land divisions administratively. In the first six months of this year, the county approved the creation of more than 350 lots and nearly 700 building location permits, none of which needed to have any sign off from Panhandle Health District before being approved.

Nearly every other county in the state has some kind of requirement to have the local health district review land divisions to make sure the lots are configured in a way to allow development. If that’s not possible, the health district won’t approve it – and either the subdivision isn’t approved by the county or the subsequent deed contains a restriction on it.

“We review all subdivisions,” said Ken Keller, environmental health specialist for the comparatively dry eight-county Southeastern Idaho Public Health District.

Eastern Idaho Public Health’s Kelly Johnson explained that they also review soil conditions in proposed lots in all of their eight counties to make sure they can support a septic system, and work with developers to adjust lot lines if they find problems.

“To just sell a lot that hasn’t been approved, and sanitary restrictions haven’t been lifted, is to risk selling a lot that is not buildable,” said Mike Reno, environmental health specialist in the four-county, highly populated Central Public Health District. “By doing the work upfront, the approval process will identify issues.”

The county’s proposed amendments to the subdivision ordinance have yet to be finalized. The Bonner County Commissioners have another hearing scheduled on Aug. 4. Information on the proposed changes is available on the county planning department’s website; bonnercountyid.gov/departments/planning.

Susan Drumheller is a freelance journalist and a member of Project 7B, a local non-profit with the mission to support land use planning based on locally shared values and aspirations. More information is available at www.project7b.org.