By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Bonner County commissioners heard and ultimately tabled recommendations from the Planning Commission to update the Hazardous Areas and Special Areas or Sites components of the Comp Plan on Jan. 11, opting instead to host a public workshop to address and incorporate concerns from various local and regional agencies.
Planner Swati Rastogi presented the recommendations to the board, noting that neither component had been updated since 2002. While the Hazardous Areas section is meant to address geological features and threats such as slopes, ground failures, floodplains and wildfire, the Special Areas or Sites component includes county data on archeological monuments and structures, cultural and ecological resources, architectural significance and more.
Idaho Fish and Game was the only agency to provide comment on the recommended updates, expressing concern about there being no mention of wetlands.
According to Planning Director Jacob Gabell, “the Planning Commission decided that Hazardous Areas wasn’t the most appropriate place for [wetlands], but the better spot to analyze and include it was Natural Resources.”
He said that wetlands aren’t “inherently” a risk or hazard in the same way as a cliffside, for instance.
“It’s more of a natural area to preserve or protect,” he said of the former, while the latter is “more of a natural resource than a risk or hazard.”
Several individuals commented with concerns echoing IDFG, including representatives of the Idaho Conservation League and the Lakes Commission. Jennifer Ekstrom, the North Idaho lakes conservation associate with ICL, called the chapter under Special Areas or Sites covering ecological significance “woefully inadequate.”
“A total of three sentences describe the ecological significance of Lake Pend Oreille, which is embarrassing, at best, to have in our county’s guiding document,” she said.
She recommended that the board start the Comp Plan rewrite over and include a professional planning consultant in the process. She also welcomed the county’s new commissioners, Luke Omodt and Asia Williams, to the board.
“I’m glad to be entering hopefully into a new era where stakeholder and public comments are considered and given due respect and consideration,” Ekstrom said.
Lakes Commission Executive Director Molly McCahon noted that the Hazardous Areas component should include shorelines, which she said are under increased threat along local waterways, and recommended that wetlands be included under that same component due to their relationship to floodplains.
Susan Drumheller, who serves on the board of local nonprofit land use and planning watchdog group Project 7B, said that the new board had the opportunity to reject the previous commissioners’ philosophy regarding the county’s lack of purview over natural resources.
“I’ve heard this justification over and over from the previous commission to justify controversial developments that could negatively impact our water quality, wildlife and quality of life in general,” she said. “I hope that this commission will take a little bit more responsibility for how land use decisions can impact our natural resources.”
During deliberation, Williams advocated for continuing the file in order to give IDFG, ICL, the Lakes Commission and other community members a chance to weigh in on how to best address wetlands and waterways in the Hazardous Areas or Special Areas sections of the Comp Plan.
She said that while the Comp Plan rewrite has been going on for years, it makes sense to try to address concerns to the furthest extent possible so that the document is a true “representation of the people.”
She compared the way the county solicits comments from agencies to a “robocall,” and questioned the system’s effectiveness — a critique which drew pushback from Commission Chair Steve Bradshaw.
“If they don’t respond, how is that our fault?” he said, adding later: “I can’t tell you how many of these I’ve sat in on and people who come and comment never bothered to go and get involved in any of [the prior hearings].”
He said interested parties should get involved as soon as a file is noticed, adding that the people of the county need to “live in real life and use our brains.”
“I’ve heard from this board two things at the same time: nobody responds, but when they do respond, then we ignore the response when we feel like it,” Williams replied.
Commissioners voted unanimously to continue the file to Wednesday, Feb. 22 at 1:30 p.m. A workshop to consider wetlands and waterways is slated for Tuesday, Jan. 24 following the commissioner’s weekly business meeting, which starts at 9 a.m.
Both meetings will be held at the Bonner County Administration Building, 1500 Highway 2 in Sandpoint.
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