By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Bonner County commissioners voted unanimously Dec. 21 to adopt updates to the Bonner County Comprehensive Plan’s Goals, Objectives and Policies document while facing concerns about lack of public involvement in the Comp Plan update process.
The Dec. 21 hearing marked the second time the board had heard planning staff present on the Goals, Objectives and Policies, which serve as a jumping-off point for the rest of the Comp Plan’s more detailed chapters. The Bonner County Planning Commission recommended the amended document’s approval in September, and the BOCC floated changes during its November hearing on the file that required an additional hearing before adoption.
The commissioners heard the Goals file, as well as proposed changes to the Comp Plan’s Community Design chapter, after nearly three hours of public testimony related to other land use files, including a hotly contested proposal to change a zoning designation at the intersection of Dufort and Vay roads from Rural-5 to Rural Service Center, allowing for the future development of a gas station on the property. The board voted unanimously to remand that file back to the planning department.
By the time the BOCC took up the Comp Plan changes, the packed room and online audience had mostly cleared.
Planner Swati Rastogi presented the Comp Plan files, despite assurances from the commissioners that they were familiar with the changes they’d suggested and didn’t need to hear them again.
“But, it is still the process that is dictated by the state code that we have a public hearing for the public to be able to participate in any recommended changes on the Goals, Objectives and Policies,” Rastogi said.
Regardless, the presentation on the actual content of the document’s amendments remained slim, with Commissioner Dan McDonald acknowledging that he’d “read through it” and made note that all of the “shalls” previously included had been changed to “shoulds,” “which is the correct language for this document,” he said.
“We are the ones who suggested all of these changes, so if we’re suddenly not in favor of that, then we probably should go to the doctor immediately,” said Commissioner Jeff Connolly, prompting laughs from the two other commissioners.
The public comment period saw testimony from Idaho Conservation League’s Jennifer Ekstrom, who serves as the organization’s North Idaho Lakes Conservation Associate. Ekstrom requested that the board table its vote on the Goals, Objectives and Policies, calling the process to update the Comp Plan “unnecessarily disjointed, complicated and confusing in a way that alienates public participation.
“You can see here, four days before Christmas, almost 5 o’ clock after everybody showed up for something else — they’re not here for this,” she said, referencing the recently cleared room. “I personally see this process right here as having much greater consequence for the future of our community than one particular issue, which is something that people don’t want in their backyard so it’s a lot more exciting to get engaged in. But this issue that is before you right now is going to have consequences long into the future. So, if you’d consider tabling it and letting the next commission take it up in a way that seems to make sense, I think that that would be terrific.”
Connolly and McDonald will be replaced in office in coming weeks by commissioners-elect Luke Omodt and Asia Williams.
Ekstrom also noted that she believed the Comp Plan’s guiding document should feature a commitment from the county to ensure landowners are procuring the necessary sewage treatment authorization prior to approving land divisions or building permits.
“A failure to do so is a huge disservice not only to the landowners and the builders, but also to everyone who enjoys or recreates in or drinks the water that can be impacted by improper sewage disposal,” she said.
McDonald responded to that concern by stating that Panhandle Health District is routed on approved files.
“We let the outside regulatory agencies deal with their business and we deal with our business,” he said. “It’s when we start trying to cross over into their business or they cross into our business that we have problems.”
Ekstrom’s other concerns, particularly about how the Land Use portion of the Comp Plan’s Goals document only made particular note of commercial and industrial uses, were dismissed by the board because other portions of the plan would address issues like rural character and natural resources.
“This is a working document,” Connolly said. “If the new commission came in on [Jan. 9] and said, ‘Yeah, we don’t like that,’ they can change it then, that very day. This is not inscribed in stone. It is meant to change, and if they don’t like it, they’ll change it.”
Written comments from Margaret Hall, a former Bonner County planning commissioner for 11 years, were also read into the record. Hall urged the board to postpone adopting the Goals document, calling the entire Comp Plan amendment process “truncated,” adding that it “lacks adequate public engagement” or consideration for current and projected scientific data.
In response to Hall’s comments, McDonald said: “Not correct, but that’s fine.”
The Comp Plan is currently being amended and adopted chapter-by-chapter, with the planning commission recommending changes for each section and commissioners adopting one chapter at a time.
“As far as the process, you think it’s disjointed, but if you go back and look at the way they did it in 2005, it’s exactly the same. Same exact process,” McDonald said in response to Ekstrom’s comments. “Because, to do this in one big body would be too cumbersome for anybody to comprehend, so they’re breaking it up in pieces. The reason for that is it’s easier to focus on something in a smaller chunk than to swallow the whole enchilada.”
Commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the updated Goals, Objectives and Policies. They also voted to hold another hearing on the Community Design chapter of the Comp Plan due to recommended changes the planning commission put forward after its last official hearing on the issue.
To stay up-to-date on upcoming Comp Plan hearings and to read the proposed amendments, go to bonnercountyid.gov/ComprehensivePlanUpdate.
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