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County officials discuss planning updates, issues

Staff Writer | March 11, 2022 1:00 AM

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SANDPOINT — Planning Department Director Milton Ollerton met with Bonner County commissioners along with other county officials on Tuesday afternoon to discuss prominent updates and changes happening in the county.

Some topics surrounded ongoing controversial themes including land use, COVID-19 precautions, and the methods and procedures used when the Planning Department posts notices in the county.

One of the most publicly known topics discussed during the meeting was about the Selle Valley rezone.

It ain’t over, ’til it’s over

County officials discussed if the Selle Valley rezone of 714 acres belonging to Pack River Partners LLC would be reconsidered in an upcoming business meeting. Commissioners denied the publicly opposed rezone from Ag/Forest-20 to Ag/Forest-10 on Nov. 18.

Deputy prosecutor and legal advisor to the commission, Bill Wilson, said it would ultimately be up to the commissioners if they wanted to rehear the file.

“The request for reconsideration that we received raises several different issues. I don’t think that all of them require reconsideration, but I think one or two of them probably do,” Wilson said. “This is certainly pending litigation. We’ve been threatened to get sued, so, I don’t want to comment. I do think that would be appropriate for executive session.”

An executive session is the private portion of public meetings. Any kind of agenda item that is about active court cases, an individual person’s private information, real property, or other information deemed confidential is covered in this portion of the meeting. Although minutes are not recorded, agendas are available to the public describing the general topic that goes up for discussion. Any voting or decisions that happen during executive session must be done on public record.

Wilson said that any member of the commission can put the Selle Rezone file on the commission's weekly agenda if they think it merits reconsideration.

“If one of you guys wants that, we’ll schedule it for a business meeting, and so that way everyone knows what you’re doing,” Wilson said.

Commissioner Chairman Dan McDonald said he would be willing to rehear the file if there was a legal flaw in the commission's original decision.

“My basis for reconsideration — there has to be something legally that we made a mistake on. To me, reconsideration is not someone coming in and saying, ‘well, we don’t agree with your decision.’”

If the commission decides to rehear the file, it will appear in the executive session portion of the commission's agenda. However, there is a high likelihood that the agenda item will not specify that the Selle rezone file is the topic up for discussion.

Pick one: Planning or Zoning

County commissioners amended Title 12 in Bonner County code, greatly impacting growth and development procedures.

On Jan.12, county commissioners voted to dissolve the Planning & Zoning Commission, and replace it with the mutually exclusive Zoning Commission and Planning Commission. The ordinance will take effect on March 30.

Title 12 of Bonner County Code addresses land use regulations in the county. The 236-page document functions as the final word on what can and cannot be built in the county.

The county is currently advertising for the new volunteer positions, which have received more applications than available seats.

“That’s a large number of volunteers,” Wilson said. “You can expect that you’re going to have people coming and going off of those, so having those extra applications and telling them, ‘even if you don’t make it this rodeo, you might have another opportunity this time next year.’”

New members of the commissions will be appointed by county commissioners.

Asking questions ahead of time

Changes in administration were not the only topic of interest surrounding Title 12. The county is planning on adopting a new ordinance modeled on a current ordinance based on a similar piece of code from our southerly neighbors in Kootenai County.

The change is hoped to allow the commission the opportunity to inquire about the intended use of an applicant’s building or project while it’s going through the early application phase.

“Although it has been a topic for debate for quite a while now, our most recent movement is to use the Kootenai County code as a template for enacting development agreement,” Wilson said. “What that would do is try to give the planning department another tool to address what development agreements are for. … It would give staff the ability to require certain things at the rezone stage that we are not really able to do now. And we’ve had some criticisms of that in the past.”

Wilson informed the commission that the Prosecutor’s Office is providing suggestions to the Planning Department as they “tweak” the ordinance for the county’s specific needs.

“We currently don’t have the ability to make it a requirement in the county. Without the ability to make that a requirement, you may have to turn down a project because you don’t have the assurance that this is going to be done to your satisfaction. This change would give you guys more flexibility,” Wilson said.

According to Wilson, once there’s an acceptable draft of the potential change, it will proceed through the county’s amendment process which takes close to 50 days to complete.

Pandemic = Over?

Agency officials discussed whether or not the county intends to continue social distancing procedures put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, if virtual options would remain available in public meetings.

“We started our Zoom process because of COVID, and it made perfect sense at the time,” Wilson said. “The courthouse is heading back to everything in person. I think we should probably be looking at ways to do that, too. I don’t know what the timeline looks like on that.”

Wilson further explained that there is no rule or ordinance that forces county agencies to stop providing a virtual option for attending meetings, and that it would be up to the commission on how to proceed.

Commissioners provided input on what they perceive an in-person-only approach would mean for county meetings with a large attendance.

“One thing that would concern me is these bigger meetings that we have — if everybody who was on Zoom showed up, and we were already over capacity,” Commissioner Jeff Connolly said before taking a long pause. “Because I want the public to participate obviously.”

Commissioners didn’t make a hard decision on what they intended to do regarding virtual meeting options.

Prioritizing digital security

According to Bonner County’s website, building location permits “regulate ‘use’ and ‘development’ in the county.” Simply put, Title 11 of county code provides defined answers as to what can, and cannot be built on a specific parcel of land.

Title 11 is very specific about which permits are needed to build any kind of structure in Bonner County.

When the county receives a building location permit application, they have to seek comments from various county agencies to see if the project will impact the agency’s ability to provide services or otherwise do their job.

Tuesday’s meeting focused on communications between the county and Panhandle Health District — specifically about when the county reaches out for comment on a project they are working on.

County officials discussed efforts to improve communications with Panhandle Health District, but Planning Director Milton Ollerton expressed concerns about the security of the communications.

“The initial agreement was that we would allow Panhandle Health District to review the building location permit for two weeks prior to our issuing it so they could notify the property owners if they saw a problem. We don’t have a problem with that, but the snag we have run into is with communication between systems,” said Ollerton.

McDonald asked why the agencies can’t just exchange emails, Ollerton responded that Panhandle Health District wanted to review the actual permit.

“We don’t want to put an access into the system that isn’t secure,” Ollerton said.

Ollerton discussed with McDonald if Panhandle Health would be able to bridge the gap in communications. Ollerton responded by saying that the options suggested by the commission are web-based, which gives him concerns about information security.

Ollerton told the commission that the department's IT is working on solutions.

What about the Comprehensive Plan?

In jest, Commissioner McDonald asked Ollerton if the comprehensive plan had been completed.

In response, Ollerton said that progress was being made, and the upcoming formation of the Planning Commission would make the process move a lot faster than it has been.

A comprehensive plan is a document that functions as the master plan guiding where growth and development should occur in a given area.

“Now you have the commission that’s working on planning, comprehensive plan map, and comprehensive plan amendments — it’s a good thing,” Ollerton said. “The comp plan map change will have to go to the planning commission, zone changes will have to go to the zoning commission. They won't be happening at the same meeting anymore.”

Wilson further clarified on the upcoming procedural requirements.

“Say the application goes through both of the respective boards, [the county commission] can still handle both of them at the same hearing,” Wilson said.

Even though the discussion did not stick to the Comprehensive Plan, it was understood that the “big-picture” for the future of the county will be a main focus for the incoming Planning Commission.

The county publishes all upcoming meetings on their website at, or physically in the lobby of the administrative building located at 1500 U.S. 2. Those who wish to provide comment to county officials about any of the topics mentioned in this article are welcome to contact county officials through the planning department, or by contacting any of the county’s commissioners — contact info can be found on the county’s website.