BoCo Planning Commission recommends designating 875 acres near Priest River ‘Rural Residential’

By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Reader Staff

The Bonner County Planning Commission on April 18 approved a Comprehensive Plan map amendment and zone change for nearly 900 acres of property recently de-annexed from the city of Priest River, designating the area Rural Residential and approving five- and 10-acre minimums on what is currently being used largely as farmland.

The land in question — identified as approximately 875 acres located off Highway 2 just east of Priest River city limits — was designated Resort Community and Transition on the county’s Comp Plan map, and had no listed zoning after being de-annexed from Priest River about two years ago. Bonner County initiated both the map amendment and zone change because, according to the zone change application, “zoning is necessary so property owners are afforded the same property rights as other landowners of Bonner County.”

The de-annexed property just east of Priest River, which the Bonner County Planning Commission recommended
designating “Rural Residential” April 18. The property in question is in purple above. Map courtesy Bonner County Planning Department.

“We don’t have the ability to deny applications or apply any zoning standards to unzoned properties,” said Planning Director Jake Gabell in the Planning Department’s presentation to commissioners April 18. “If an applicant came in with 5,000-square-foot lots, I couldn’t tell them ‘no.’”

Gabell said that through workshops with property owners, a Rural Residential land designation was determined best suited for the land, which is surrounded by Rural Residential and Ag-Forest lots.

“We were looking at more density, given the proximity to the city and the availability of urban services … then when we got the input from the community, R-5 seemed more appropriate,” Gabell said.

Public comment on both the map amendment and zone change files contributed by a handful of neighbors centered on concerns about future development of the property affecting water access, wildlife and “rural character.” Planning commissioners noted that the files before the board April 18 were not about development — a point that Priest River Mayor and former Bonner County Commissioner Jeff Connolly and his brother, landowner John Connolly, drove home during their comments.

“We’re not developing anything — we’re just trying to make it where it makes sense,” John said. “We’re not promoting development.”

While planning staff found the map amendment and zone change both in line with county code, some commissioners worried that the heavily sloped northeastern portion of the property, consisting mostly of timberland, did not fall under the Rural Residential land designation or R-5/R-10 parcel minimum requirements.

“There’s a reason why we focus on steep slopes being lower density,” said Planning Commissioner Dave Frankenbach. “There are issues with wildfire hazard that comes with steep slopes, and access … There’s a pretty clear connection between looking at places with steep slopes and saying ‘we want those to be lower density.’”

Planner Daniel Britt pushed back on Frankenbach’s comments, noting that under the land’s current Resort Community and Transition designation, “we’re talking 4,000-square-foot lots [being allowed] up there.”

“That’s not a relevant comment,” Frankenbach rebutted. “What we should be doing is [considering] what’s the best fit based on what the Comp Plan reads today, and the way the zoning ordinance reads today.”

A motion to recommend the map amendment to the board of county commissioners for final approval failed after several planning commissioners echoed Frankenbach’s concerns. A second motion, which amended the findings of fact to acknowledge “mapped slopes that appear to be up to and even greater than 30%,” passed on a 5-2 vote, officially designating the 875 acres Rural Residential.

Despite discussion about amending the proposed zoning change to make the sloped area Ag-Forest with 10- and 20-acre minimums, the commission voted 6-1 to approve planning staff’s recommendation to designate the bulk of the property Rural-5, with those sloped portions in the northeastern corner identified as Rural-10.

“The Rural-5 designation is made for rural character and the ability [for] agricultural pursuits,” said Planning Commissioner Matt Linscott before the vote. “So, when someone says that you cannot have rural character on a five, our own zoning code says that’s what it’s for: rural character, as well as agricultural pursuits.”

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