Planning workshop rife with concern
Photo by ANNISA KEITH
Staff Writer | August 4, 2022 1:00 AM
SANDPOINT — Despite a turnout of only about 20 people, the Planning Commission got an earful as they sought input to update implementation of Bonner County’s Comprehensive Plan.
Jacob Gabell, the assistant director of the Planning Department, explained that these updates are to make the goals, objectives, and policies of the current Comprehensive Plan in an effort to make them more congruent, and not a process for a new comprehensive plan.
According to Gabell, after the Planning and Zoning Commission was separated into two commissions, one of the first items the Planning Commission took up was the incongruence of the current comprehensive plan with its current goals, objectives, and policies. Gabell said that “the comprehensive plan goals, policies, and objectives as they sit now don’t align specifically with the text of the approved document.”
Several attendees were confused about the use of the term “workshop” to describe what for many seemed to be a typical public meeting.
The first commenter asked for clarification as to the workshop branding of the meeting. County resident Mary Wilcose said that other local government workshops she had attended had presentations and were more interactive, instead of sitting in rows.
Commissioner Allan Songstad explained that by “workshop” the commission meeting without taking action. Songstad asked if Wilcose had any comments about the proposed goals, objectives, and policies. She said she was hoping to be educated at the workshop.
Commissioner Don Davis asked Songstad if they would “enter into dialogue with people about the goals” during the meeting. Songstad said “no, we are going to take comments and then have our discussion.”
Jennifer Ekstrom of the Idaho Conservation League asked for thoughtful consideration. She asked that the commission pause the partial revision to allow for necessary data gathering and for more public education and involvement. .
“Our community has not been reasonably educated about the proposed changes and their consequences,” Ekstrom said. “Posting a marked-up document on the county website is simply not enough.”
Ekstrom also asked that the Planning Commission hire a planning expert and that, instead of modifying the goals, objectives, and procedures from the last comprehensive plan, the commission begin drafting a new comprehensive plan entirely.
Ekstrom said the commission should begin a new comprehensive plan drafting process by gathering relevant, recent, and accurate data and by increasing public engagement.
“Once we build a subdivision in a wetland or allow development in a place that cannot accommodate a sewer system or allow industry to contaminate groundwater, we cannot take those problems back. The problems will be here longer than any of us,” Ekstrom said.
Ekstrom finished with “I simply ask that you set aside your current work and launch a full comprehensive plan update with a professional guide. Do it once and do it right.”
Songstad reminded the public that the meeting was for comment about the proposed draft of the goals, objectives, and policies and that the Planning Commission is not seeking comments on the broader process.
Kristina Kingsland, who serves on the Zoning Commission, had a comment about the approach to public property the Planning Commission will take, should the document be approved.
While the proposed document would strongly protect private property rights, Kingsland felt public property deserves equal protection as well.
Under the objectives section of the property rights chapter, where the proposed draft states “[p]rivate property shall not be taken for public uses without just compensation or due process of law” Kingsland would like to see the same wording, but for public property as well.
Bonner County resident Mason White brought another concern about the revision process. Citing public meetings, White said that at the end of the planning meeting on July 5, a Planning Commissioner Debby Trinen said “he said get it done by January.” White interpreted this as Trinen describing a directive by an elected official to finish the revision process before the current terms end.
Furthermore, White quoted Commissioner Dan McDonald from a 2020 meeting, where he allegedly said that “anything we do not like, especially if it is counter to the decisions we have already made, are going to be changed without a hiccup.” White considers these two quotes to indicate a violation of Idaho Code, which she said does not permit elected officials taking action on the plan before it is presented to them.
White was also concerned about the commission’s approach to housing. While the current document states “Bonner County recognizes diverse housing needs are to be addressed to provide adequate shelter for all, regardless of age, income or physical abilities,” the commission plans to replace that statement with “Bonner County will enable opportunities for diverse housing needs.”
White was also concerned about the process. She alleged that the revision process of the implementation component was suggested to be a yearlong, but was changed to a four month deadline instead. White was concerned that this timeline left only the subarea plans which began in 2016 and have already ended and a few public workshops this August as the only opportunities for public input.
“People need real workshops to have their questions answered,” White said.
Susan Drumheller from Sagle also took issue with the process. “This is not authentic public involvement,” she said.
“Scheduling these in August when most people are either on vacation or wanting to be outside and enjoy the weather … I would echo what [Ekstrom] requested, that you slow down, pause, kind of go back to the drawing board as far as the process goes,” Drumheller added.
Drumheller also shared her vision for the implementation component. She would like to see all land division applications be reviewed to ensure consistency with the comprehensive plan’s land use goals.
She also underscored the need to provide access for recreation in Bonner County. Drumheller asked that they use the “Bonner County Trails Plan” as guidance for protecting public recreation.
“We have ample public lands and waterways but we lack adequate public access points to these commonly held lands,” she said.
She further requested that the commission strike the language banning access easements. The proposed document states “[u]nder no circumstances, will Bonner County require access easements on private property as a condition of development.”
Drumheller asked for the inclusion of a policy that “guarantees due process for neighbors of land divisions or developments … that ensures that all neighboring property owners are given adequate notice … when applications for [minor land divisions] or any other land divisions are made to the county.”
She also suggested a policy that would require “sanitary lift to be obtained prior to any land division.” Allegedly, this requirement had been on the books as of a few years ago, but has been amended out of code.
Jean Girth, also of Sagle, was concerned about the lack of planning for population growth and the failure by the commission to factor in climate change for their goals, objectives, and policies. Girth said that population growth, climate change and extreme weather events are going to overwhelm the area in the near future.
Don Morris, a county resident who also has a small Christmas tree business, was concerned about changes to the land-use map potentially impacting his business. He also urged the commission to take seriously housing needs for workers by allowing workforce housing to be built on agricultural land. Requiring a commute for workers has made retaining a workforce complicated, Morris stated.
Gabell explained that updating the land-use map would be the last part of the revision process.
George Garig, of Ponderay, said he agreed with much of the criticism of the process and was also concerned about the lack of an outside expert adviser for this process. He was particularly concerned about endangered species. Garig asked for a professional to be involved in this process, and for the process “to finally clear up the confusion about what constitutes critical habitat” in the county.
The Planning Commission asked for comments to be submitted by August 23 online to their email email@example.com and asked for more public participation at their next public workshop on Thursday, August 16 at 4:30 p.m. at the County Administrative Building.
To read the proposed changes to the implementation component of the Bonner County Comprehensive Plan go to bit.ly/BoCoPlan.