By Zach Hagadone
Members of the Sandpoint City Council voted Jan. 19 to grant two appeals of a conditional use permit handed down by the Planning and Zoning Commission in November that would have cleared the way for a 107-unit multi-family housing development adjacent to the Sandpoint airport.
The Schweitzer Cutoff townhome project, brought by developer Derick Driggs and represented by Todd Butler, of Forte Architecture and Planning, needed the conditional use permit to proceed with construction on the 6.35-acre parcel. The site in question underwent a rezone from residential single family to mixed-use residential in 2019, and its context area designation adjusted for lower intensity use under the future land use map.
Around the same time, the city underwent the process of adding an airport facilities chapter to the Comprehensive Plan, which stipulated that rezones leading to increased residential density within the airport’s inner critical and lateral safety zones be deemed incompatible uses on a number of grounds, including safety and to protect the economic viability of the airport.
Both Driggs and Butler argued that the zone change to multi-family residential came before the adoption of the Comp Plan rules pertaining to development within the airport safety zones, and therefore the project should be allowed to go forward with a CUP.
“This property is zoned mixed-use residential. … [T]he owners of this property should have the right to develop this property,” Butler said.“My clients would not have purchased this property without assurances from the FAA.”
“This is a grandfather situation,” Driggs said.
The applicants returned again and again to the housing affordability crisis affecting North Idaho, and assured council members that their project would provide the kind of housing that so many in the region are desperate to access.
“It’s a thoughtful project; it’s a community-geared project, not a greedy developer project,” Driggs said.
A majority of Planning and Zoning Commissioners had agreed in November that the need for housing went beyond the potential risks, granting the CUP, but Bonner County — which owns the land under the airport and serves as the sponsor of the facility — as well as Granite Aviation brought two separate appeals of the decision.
Allen Schoff, of Davillier Law, represented the county and argued that not enough due diligence had been completed to assess the threats posed by a housing development so close to the airport, including jeopardizing vital funding from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“The question is not do we need housing in Sandpoint … the question here is this parcel we’re considering today appropriate for developing 107 homes,” he said.
Meanwhile, Andy Berrey, of Granite Aviation, stressed that if approved, “The development would be the closest high-density residential to incoming and departing aircraft at a federally funded airport of our output or bigger in the state of Idaho and likely the western United States.”
“Do not think for a second that safety is not an issue here — it is a huge issue,” he said, noting four aircraft accidents at the airport between 2008 and 2021, as well as 200%-300% growth in air traffic over the past two years.
What’s more, Berrey said as much as $7 million in conditional FAA funding could be thrown into doubt if the agency decided the land use was incompatible with safe airport operations.
“The airport will not know if the funding is pulled until after the incompatible land use is constructed,” he said, later adding that Idaho Code requires studies for conditional use permits that may pose airport-related hazards.
“This should be a no-brainer to say let’s take a step back and see what’s going on here,” he said.
Airport Manager Dave Schuck said the development would be “a bad idea for a number of reasons,” including noise and safety.
Council members had to weigh those factors, but centered on remaining consistent with the current Comp Plan, rather than what it looked like in 2019 before the addition of the airport facilities chapter.
“We have had a deep and expressed commitment to our airport and, although it’s a good [development] product and a compelling argument, I believe this is unfortunately the wrong location for it,” said Council member Andy Groat. “It is inappropriate for me to be trading one problem for another.”
For his part, Council member Justin Dick said he is “very deeply empathetic about the housing situation … [but] I too feel like we have made a commitment to this airport and we do have to look at the Comp Plan as it exists today.”
Dick moved to grant the appeals, agreeing that giving the permit would not be in accordance with the Comp Plan or city code — specifically as it related to residential development within the inner critical zone — as well as could be detrimental to the economic vitality of both the airport and the community at large.
Groat seconded the motion, with City Council President Kate McAlister and Council member Joel Aispuro voting “yes.” Council member Deb Ruehle, who called on governments and groups with jurisdiction over the airport to “step up” and compile more current data related to the airport, voted “no.”
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