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RV remand approved again by commissioners

by LAUREN REICHENBACH
Staff Writer | November 4, 2023 1:00 AM

Bonner County commissioners Luke Omodt and Steve Bradshaw voted Monday to approve the heavily disputed RV park project in Blanchard following its remand a few months ago.

The project would place 20 RV spots on a 4.17-acre parcel on the corner of Al’s Welding Road and Clagstone Road. The project was previously considered by the commissioners in August 2022 with an approval letter signed in September that same year. After a judicial review in August 2023, the district court remanded the file back to the commissioners for further agency proceedings.

The hearing Monday focused on two aspects: Did the project have the appropriate standard of review and does the site have “adequate” fire suppression? Commissioner Asia Williams did not attend the public hearing due to a conflict of interest.

Currently, a well on the property produces 30 gallons of water per minute, but a flow rate of 250 gallons per minute is being required for the project. The property owner has applied for a second well permit that will bring the property to the necessary 15,000-gallon capacity needed for proper fire suppression. A fire hydrant will also be required on the property.

Before Oct. 16, staff had only received one comment on the proposed project. By Oct. 30, the date of the public hearing, the county had received 28 comments.

Norm Semanko, who represented those opposed to the project, said that the county was misrepresenting the project in regards to zoning guidelines.

“Calling something an RV park and saying it’s commercial, does not eliminate the fact, which you must make a determination whether the fact exists or not — are these RVs being proposed as single family dwelling units?” he asked. “If the answer to that factual question is yes — and the court made this clear — then under your code, you can only allow two such dwelling units on this acreage.”

Semanko said there was nothing wrong with intending RVs to act as single family dwellings, however, that many on one property is not permissible with the current county codes in effect. He asked the commissioners to vote no on the project as he did not feel it satisfied the requirements needed to be a short-stay RV park.

“Sometimes you want to vote — I know from experience as a former public official — for something or against something, but the facts and the law just don’t support it,” he said. “That’s the case here.”

The property owner, Stephen Doty, disagreed, saying not only does the proposed project meet county codes, it surpasses all of them. Doty claimed he is intending to operate like all the other RV parks in the county, charging for nightly, weekly and monthly stays. He does not intend to create long-term or permanent housing, he said.

“The idea that [Semanko’s] trying to call it by another name, using terms that I don’t use in my permit, that’s not fair,” Doty said. “That’s not accurate. I’m not applying for permits for dwelling units. I’m applying for an RV park permit to operate an RV park.”

Every proposed RV spot is 50% larger than county code requires; the required space between each RV space is doubled from 10 feet to 20 feet; and there are two exits and entrances each, also double what code requires.

In addition, Doty said the Spirit Lake fire chief signed off on the project last year — something he said would not have been done had the property not had, or been working to get, adequate fire suppression.

“It’s a shame that my park has been attacked so many times,” he said. “Especially when I’ve gone above and beyond to make sure it meets the code and surpasses the code in any way I can.”

Spirit Lake Fire Chief Debbie Carpenter also spoke during the public hearing, voicing her confidence in the project. While there are no state statutes regarding an exact amount of fire suppression required in RV parks, Carpenter said based on her experience, this project would have sufficient suppression with a 15,000-gallon tank. In her research, she alleged anywhere between 15,000 and 60,000 gallons were plenty for RV parks of this size or larger.

“Really, the small end of that would be what I would require for this,” she said.

Carpenter said based on the location of the park, any emergency call would result in three fire districts being able to be dispatched to the site in the event of a fire. Thanks to the two entrances and exits, she also said that with a 250-foot hose, a fire truck could reach almost any part of the RV park even if the engines stayed parked on the road.

Despite the fire chief’s confidence in the project, public commenters still voiced many concerns regarding the amount of fire suppression that would be available in the area. Especially with multiple propane tanks, one public commenter said it would be as if bombs were going off the second the fire hit the tanks.

“If one catches, they’re all going to catch,” she said. “I’m worried the whole five acres will go up.”

If the property is not set up with completely adequate fire suppression to begin with, she alleged the commissioners would be setting the county up for more potential lawsuits.

Another public commenter mentioned how clueless many short-term residents can act, as they’re on “vacation mode.” Living by another RV park just down the road, he said he constantly sees guests engaging in questionable activity that can start wildfires in the blink of an eye.

“You can have all the water in the world, but if you have one person making a mistake in big winds, this place is gone,” he said. “The people spoke in Bonner County. You guys work for us; you need to listen to us.”

Many other commenters voiced concerns for the RV park turning into permanent housing, as Semanko mentioned. One said it seemed as though the commissioners were picking and choosing which parts of the law they wanted to follow and ignoring the rest that didn’t suit them.

“The zoning code is part of the law and you can't just take part of the law, you have to take the whole law,” she said.

A few others felt that the permanent residents of Bonner County were being pushed to the wayside in the name of expansion.

“Please don’t put developers before residents,” another commenter said.

No members of the audience or anyone dialed in remotely spoke neutrally or in favor of the project — all comments were against it.

Despite this, the commissioners spoke favorably of the project.

“We have to judge and make our decision based on applicable law and what is adequate fire [suppression],” Bradshaw said. “We live in a rural community in a rural county. Depending on the fire will depend on what’s adequate. Those of us who have been in the forest fires and dealt with the forest fires know there’s never adequate.”

While he said he’d love to follow state statute on how much fire suppression is required, there is no state statute, and he can’t go off something that doesn’t exist.

“What exists, I feel, is the best fire suppression that is available for our area,” he said.

Omodt told the audience that if the fire chief believes that the available fire suppression is adequate, she should be listened to as she is an expert in her field.

“She is the chief of that district and I respect her perspective,” he said. “I think we should be considering what the chief has to say.”

Bradshaw moved to approve the project, but Omodt moved to amend the motion with the requirement that the property have a backup power source for the pumphouse. The amendment passed unanimously as well as Bradshaw’s original motion.