By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Bonner County commissioners voted unanimously Dec. 21 to send a zone change application for 11.8 acres at the intersection of Dufort and Vay roads back to the planning department, encouraging the applicants to apply for a Comprehensive Plan map amendment and add more detail to their development agreement for the site, which is the intended home of a gas station and convenience store.
The rezone, applied for by property owners Sean and Laura Hammond, would change the property from its current Rural-5 designation to Rural Service Center. The Bonner County Zoning Commission recommended approval of the file in October.
Jeremy Grimm of Whiskey Rock Planning and Consulting, presenting on behalf of the Hammonds at the Dec. 21 hearing, said the owners were seeking the rezone “because, having raised a family in the area since 1993, they’re very familiar with the lack of services in this region.” He also pointed to the multiple subdivisions and nearby homes, stating that the property “is not a wilderness oasis by any means.”
“My clients see this as a chance to enhance the neighborhood and provide services, as is called out in the Comprehensive Plan for this designated zone,” Grimm said, adding later: “Like anything, not everyone is going to be happy with change, but they just want to make a go at this and see this as a real opportunity for themselves and their family to live and work and build this convenience store and associated commercial activities on this parcel.”
The hearing saw dozens of comments from residents largely opposed to the zone change. Among their concerns, they cited a potentially dangerous increase in traffic; threats to the neighborhood’s rural character; possible fuel tank leaks, runoff and risks to local wells; the property’s proximity to the already existing Vay store; the lack of a Comp Plan map amendment, which typically accompanies a proposed zone change; allegations of “spot zoning”; and uncertainty surrounding possible boat storage proposed at the site, which hadn’t been addressed prior to the hearing.
“This is not something that the residents want,” said hearing attendee Jennifer Garwood. “It’s creating a danger that we don’t need to have at that particular intersection.”
Grimm addressed the spot zoning accusations during rebuttal, noting that the Comp Plan map is meant to be a guiding document, not a literal zoning map, giving the commissioners the ability to make amendments as long as they align with county code.
“Unfortunately, most folks don’t understand planning because they don’t do it everyday,” Commissioner Dan McDonald said. “For some of these people, this is probably the first planning meeting that they’ve ever come to, so it’s important that we explain why someone telling them this is spot zoning is actually incorrect.”
During deliberation, commissioners expressed concern over the applicant’s development agreement, created at the recommendation of the zoning commission.
“As I look at it, I just think this thing has a huge amount of holes in it,” said Commissioner Jeff Connolly. “I think if you’re going to make an agreement I want to know exactly what you’re agreeing to with that parcel and property.”
He recommended that the Hammonds work with planning staff to “get down to the nitty-gritty” of what would be allowed on the property following the zone change. McDonald concurred.
“I think it’s a good project,” he said. “However, the development agreement is giving me enough pause to say, you know what, let’s remand it back to the planning department, have the applicant file for a Comp Plan [map] amendment as well — that way it’s clean and simple and there’s less potential that [county legal counsel] has to jump through hoops to defend it in court, and let’s get the development agreement tightened up.”
McDonald emphasized that overwhelming public sentiment against the zone change did not weigh into the board’s decision.
“What we’re looking for is a legal premise we can hang our hat on,” he said. “‘I don’t want it’ is not a legal premise. In fact, ‘I don’t want it’ means you want us to deny someone their property rights, and if the tables were turned and your private property rights were being diminished, you would have a problem with it.”
The board, including Commissioner Steve Bradshaw — who commented very little during deliberation — voted unanimously to remand the file back to the planning department.
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