City works to balance housing, airport
This screenshot from the Dec. 4 City Council meeting shows proposed changes to the land use map at and around the Sandpoint Airport. The land use map, along with updates to the citys comprehensive plan regarding the airport and surrounding area, as well as changes to City Code regarding the airport overlay zone, were approved by council members on Wednesday, resulting in a lift of the temporary moratorium placed on new zone change requests in the area.
Staff Writer | February 1, 2022 1:00 AM
Story has been updated for accuracy.
SANDPOINT — A proposed development within the Sandpoint Airport’s inner critical zone has been rejected by the Sandpoint City Council.
Councilman Andy Groat said while developers had a good product and had compelling arguments for the project, the location was wrong.
The project, which took up several hours at the council’s Jan. 19 meeting, would have allowed for 107 multi-family development on 6.35 acres at 425 Schweitzer Cutoff Road. After the end of the lengthy discussion, the council voted 4-1 in support of the appeal and against the project. Councilman Jason Welker abstained due to his serving as Planning & Zoning chairman at the time the project was presented to the council.
While council members expressed appreciation for the concept, they also expressed concern over how it could impact the airport.
In attempting to solve one problem, Groat said that solution would cause another. In this case, he said the city’s commitment to the airport supersedes the developement, and was agreed upon before the regional and national housing crisis.
Councilman Joel Aspuiro said that both sides presented hypotheticals of positives and negatives for the community; affordable housing, more jobs and risks. Council President Kate McAlister agreed that the council made a commitment to the airport and must follow the comprehensive plan but said she remains passionate about the need for affordable and workforce housing.
Councilman Justin Dick said that he understands the housing need as he pays rent for several of his employees due to the lack of housing.
Councilwoman Deb Ruehle wished that the airport board and county had been more forthcoming with information instead of speculating what could happen. She wanted the council to be updated on airport issues sooner rather than when appeals come before the council.
The council voted 4-1 accepting the appeals and denying the conditional use agreement application brought forward by the developers, in accordance to the 13 chapter of the comprehensive plan and with city code with the inner critical zone may be detrimental to economic welfare of the airport.
Located in the southeast corner of Schweitzer Cutoff and North Boyer roads, the proposed development was approved with conditions by the city’s Planning and Zoning committee on Nov. 16, 2021. Appeals were sent to the council by Granite Aviation LLC and Bonner County, which oversees the airport.
Daren Fluke, interim city planner, presented information on the development to the council. In his presentation, he said the adoption of the current comprehensive plan in December 2009 the property was designated at CA-3 or context area three which allows for a mix of residential and commercial type land use. In August 2019 the property owners rezoned from residential single family to mixed users, Fluke said.
The development complied with design and dimensional standards of the multi-use residential zone, including density, setbacks and building typography, he said. And Fluke said he found it to have adequate public services to serve the proposed project.
The context area that the development is in encourages preservation of wildlife habitat and open space, said Fluke. The utilization of clustered developments allows slightly higher density in exchange for protection of larger areas for open space.
In speaking for the developers, Todd Butler with Forte Architecture Planning said a conditional use permit is required when more than eight units are proposed on a site.
The 107 units are made up of six, seven or eight units per building in a townhouse style with attached garages with individual driveways, Butler said. The size of the lot allows up to 265 units, but the planners tried to keep density lower to allow for five times the open space associated with planning regulations.
In response to the Davillier Law Group, which is representing Bonner County, Butler said the main appeal states that the project would create aviation hazards and could hurt long-term planning at the airport. He agreed against that claim.
Butler also said developers concentrated on a few items in the comprehensive plan, but not how it complies with the document.
“The community design will provide diverse housing options, provide a positive impact for jobs and economic development throughout the city and meet design directives as outlined and adopted in Sandpoint City code,” he said.
The area in which the development is located encourages cluster developments with a concentration of dwelling units at a slightly higher density while providing more green space.
“To provide the same amount of housing in single family lots it would require nearly twice the land and would provide nearly five times the land to provide 265 allowable units on the property or 30 acres versus the 6.35 acres. So that is preservation of open space,” he said.
Once the sidewalks are completed on Schweitzer Cutoff Road the development will be connected to the fairgrounds and have access to bike trails and U.S. 95.
The airport critical zone was created in 2019 as a new section to code, which impacts every existing property in the area, Butler said.
“Our office did an analysis of the structures within the inner critical zone and by our count approximately 271 single family dwelling, 117 commercial or industry buildings in the zone between city and county land,” he said.
Examples of locations between this zone are Farmin Stidwell Elementary, Life Care Center, multiple hotels and Starbucks, he said. A lot of structures are in the critical zone and, as a result, Butler said that the proposed project would not drastically change the character of the area.
“The change is the same as with any development and in line with the comprehensive plan and zoning regulations,” he said.
There were concerns the property would be impacted by airport noise, Butler pointed to the airport’s own noise impact zone map which shows the proposed development is outside of the zone. When the Federal Aviation Administration was contacted about the project, they said there was no hazard to air navigation with the development at its location, he said.
Speaking on behalf of the ownership group, Derick Driggs said he and his business partners live in Sandpoint came up with the development to help fill the area’s housing needs.
At the time of the meeting, three houses were available for rent within the city. Two were one bed and one bath and a third was a three-bedroom, two-bath home over $3,000 a month, said Driggs. He said that typical rental homes are being sold due to the possible profit.
“We have a housing crisis period,” Driggs said. “The family with two median incomes has nowhere to go [...] and are being forced out of the community.”
Major employers like Bonner General, Litehouse and Kaniksu are having difficulty recruiting and retaining staff due to the housing crisis. Litehouse CEO Kelly Prior wrote a letter in support of this project due to the need for employee housing, Driggs said. Employees are resending offers or working remotely because they can’t find housing.
“Some of their top level corporate positions are being remotely filled because there’s no housing option to get those people in town. That’s money and great paying jobs that’s not staying in the community,” he said.
Driggs said he and his partners found what they thought was a perfect location, did their due diligence, followed code, but there was on caveat — the airport, he said.
The development received an all clear from the FAA on the height or the structures, lighting and code. It has five times the open space required and is only as for 40% of the density that the project could request, he said.
“107 [units] may seem a lot to some, but 265 is a lot more,” he said. “It’s a thoughtful, community-geared project. Not a developer greed project where we are trying to cram as much as we can into this thing and get what we can out of it.”
“It’s a need for a starter level home that someone can feel proud of and put their family into where they can occupy the whole space and have some value and pride in what they have, but the airport says ‘not in my backyard’,” he said. “Here we are spending more time and money on what really is basic land rights.”
At the P&Z meeting when the commission was trying to find common ground, the airport managers were asked what density would be appropriate. They came back with zero, said Driggs.
“Do you think our forefathers that put a gravel runway on the hill in the early ”40s ever anticipated that that entity would be dictating our city’s development? And not only that, be fighting and repealing the most basic human needs — shelter and a home. No they’d be outraged,” he said.
This is a recurring theme of the airport, said Driggs. Sandpoint can’t grow, the airport can’t grow, leading him to wonder if the airport is in the right location. There are over 100 acres there that can be sold and used to build another airport in the ideal location, he said.
Mike Chapman, attorney for the development, said that they are not asking for a zone change. The Idaho Transportation Department has developed a land use code for all requirements for minimum standards for airport compatibility zoning, he said.
Of the 11 criteria this development meets all the requirements and is not within the runway protection zone, said Chapman.
Andrew Berry of Granite Aviation in favor of the appeal and against the development. In the past the airport has lost funding for five years due to the land use issues surrounding the airport. With the nearest townhome located within 310 feet of the runway, the development could negatively impact the airport, he said.
“In the entire western United States this would be the closest density of residents to any federally funded airport of our size,” Berry said. “This would make national news.”
Berry also cited several safety concerns and issues raised by the project’s proximity to the airport, including noise levels, airport certification concerns and insurance. In the past 15 years there have been four accidents at the airport where aircrafts have gone off the runway and towards the proposed development.
In 2021 there were two accidents on the runway, said Berry. In one accident in over the years an aircraft has traveled 570 feet off the runway at the north end of the airport. The proposed development is only 530 feet from the runway. Berry said that in that accident the plan would have ended up within the development.