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Bonner County can do more to protect water quality

by SUSAN DRUMHELLER / Contributing Writer
| September 12, 2023 1:00 AM

Idaho is lucky to have environmental experts looking out for public health when it comes to land use decisions that impact water quality. These experts were on hand to share information and answer questions about the unique nature of rural wastewater systems at a meeting hosted by Bonner County Commissioner Asia Williams on Aug. 22.

But the Panhandle Health District can’t protect drinking water, lakes and rivers on their own. They need the cooperation of county government, something that has been largely lacking in Bonner County since commissioners began changing land use codes in 2016.

Bonner County is unique in the state by not requiring health district approval prior to approving development plans and building permits (with few exceptions). The flaws in the system were demonstrated when health district officials, in response to a question, shared that permitting septic systems in the new Camp Bay development was "a challenge" because lot lines, buildings and roads were established before health district involvement and before any land was set aside for sewage drainfields.

The Camp Bay development has 37 lots, including some waterfront parcels and parcels less than 2 acres. Originally, the developer was planning to install a community sewer system, but now he is planning to use individual septic systems, according to the health district.

Bonner County planning officials say they require any new lots under 2.5 acres to have health district approval; however, the smaller Camp Bay lots were established through boundary line adjustments, which are not subject to health district review. Other larger lots were created through minor land divisions, which also didn’t require health district review.

Generally, it appears we no longer have a reliable process to ensure health district sign-off before most land divisions or building location permits are approved.

The deregulation of land development in Bonner County began in earnest in 2016, and the problems are coming home to roost. Camp Bay is just one example.

Issues with lax county rules regarding septic systems are outlined in a recent memo following a previous meeting Panhandle Health District staff had with county officials. You can read this memo at project7b.org/smart-septic-installation/.

When developing land, building a home or buying a home in rural Bonner County, it is strongly advised that you understand the requirements for sewage treatment in order to avoid financial hardships due to lots unsuitable for a standard septic system. If you have questions about septic systems or community sewer districts, contact the local Panhandle Health District Environmental Division.

Susan Drumheller is on the board of Project 7B, a local nonprofit that advocates for responsible land use planning and public involvement in land use decisions.

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