Project 7B calls for review of Clagstone Ranch land divisions
Staff Writer | November 14, 2021 1:00 AM
BLANCHARD — A local nonprofit is challenging county approval of several plats in the emerging Clagstone Ranch subdivision.
Project 7B announced its support earlier this week for appeals of several proposed Clagstone Ranch plats recently approved by the Bonner County commissioners.
The organization said it joined with neighbors to appeal the decision — and backed an effort to limit the fees charged for a review of the decision — because it shares the neighbors’ concerns that the minor land division process creates a lack of transparency and prevents an opportunity for public comment. Residents in the Clagstone Road area didn’t realize a development was underway until the surveyors and bulldozers arrived, Project 7B officials said in a press release.
"That’s because the MLD process doesn’t require notification of neighboring property owners, unlike the short plat or subdivision process," the group said in the release. "Nor is there a public notice — not until it appears on the Bonner County commissioners’ agenda, at which point it’s too late to appeal an administrative decision."
The only available course was to ask the county commission to reconsider its decision — and that comes with a $325 upfront cost. On behalf of a dozen neighbors near the Clagstone Ranch development — is a 380-acre private, gated community of 5-acre homesteads — Project 7B submitted a motion asking the board to reconsider and paid the fee to challenge Clagstone Ranch Additions 14-17.
The motion came a week after the neighbors filed a motion to reconsider three other additions in the same development. However, when Project 7B filed the second motion, the county charged a fee for each MLD being challenged — resulting in a $1,300 bill.
The group had contended that, because the approval was made as one decision under the consent agenda, only one fee should be charged for Project 7B's request to reconsider the decision. They also told commissioners that the substantive questions contained in the requests were the same with minimal amount of additional staff time needed to review the MLDs and with the ability to fold all of them into one public hearing.
Commissioners questioned that contention, saying a key part of what they are attempting to do is to ensure those causing the costs, pay the costs instead of shifting that burden onto taxpayers.
In moving to deny the request, commissioners said their hands were tied by the wording of the ordinance and the law.
"I would say deny the request to waive the fees only base on the law," Commission Chairman Dan McDonald said. "I mean it'd be great if it was different. That would work out well for everybody but based on the law [we don't have a choice.]"
After passing the motion, Commissioner Jeff Connolly said the county needed "to add clarity" to its fees. "I truly question whether we did the right thing," he added.
McDonald said he didn't disagree, but said he didn't see that the board had any other option but to deny the fee waiver request. "I think we need to figure out how to manipulate this thing a little bit so it's easier."
Project 7B officials said they believe the Clagstone Ranch development is more suitable for the subdivision process, which applies to developments with more than 10 lots and requires a public hearing. The developer filed applications for 18 MLDs, creating 72 parcels all in the same area.
"In the last few months, the planning director approved 18 minor land divisions in the Clagstone Ranch area, creating 72 lots without the knowledge or input from neighbors," Susan Drumheller, Project 7B board member, said. "We're simply trying to give those neighbors a voice and review the multiple steps that led to those decisions last week and this decision that resulted in the last four ones."
In calling for a review of the project, Project 7B officials said the rapid pace of land divisions closely followed a change of the county's Comprehensive Land Use Map and Zoning for an entire section — 640 acres — of the Hoodoo Valley off Clagstone Road. The change saw zoning of the section switch from Agriculture/Forestry to Rural Residential and was made over the objections of neighbors. That county-initiated zone change in May of 2020 reduced the minimum allowable lot size from 20 acres to 5 acres.
“After all the times the longtime residents of this rural forested area, with state and national forest all around, have sent letters, shown up at hearings and otherwise fought against urban sprawl and ‘development,’ the commissioners have outright lied this time,” said neighboring resident Judy Stark. “When they wrongly, and against the code, rezoned this section, they promised it wouldn’t be developed any further.”
The MLD process is problematic, shutting the public and vested agencies such as fire, sewer and health districts from being able to determine potential impacts, Project 7B officials said. Since the process was implemented, they contend that developers have been abusing the process with at least 166 MLD applications filed in 2021 alone — and creating as many as 664 lots administratively.
"There was no opportunity to appeal the administrative decision because nobody knew when it happened," Drumheller said. "There was absolutely no public notice and that's one of the problems with the MLD process."
Commissioner said that once they saw the process was being abused, they moved to close the loophole. However, until the changes go into effect, they said they are legally bound to allow projects in the pipeline to go through until existing code.
Project 7B officials said they support efforts to crack down on MLD abuse, but questioned whether county officials were exercising due diligence in reviewing applications or ensuring developers were abiding by the county's rules and regulations.
The group called on county officials to review their decision to approve the Clagstone MLDs and require the development to follow the subdivision process — including a public hearing. It’s the only way to ensure that all county residents' property rights are protected, Project 7B officials said.
"While the commission decided Tuesday not to waive the excess fees for the motion for reconsideration, they must still decide whether or not they will give the public a voice on the unprecedented development in this rural neighborhood," Project 7B officials said.