County approves altered CUP for Panhandle Bike Ranch in Sagle

Residents argue over property rights, safety and the future of a rural neighborhood

By Soncirey Mitchell
Reader Staff

After six and a half hours of tears, cheers and spirited arguments on June 24, the Bonner County board of commissioners approved an appeal from the Panhandle Bike Ranch, lessening restrictions and affirming their existing conditional use permit. The ruling went against a conflicting appeal made by residents of the neighboring Five Lakes Estates community who sought to strike the CUP, citing private property rights and concerns over safety, zoning regulation and the preservation of their way of life.

Though the county has twice approved developers Scott and Jennifer Kalbach’s CUP, legal counsel, members of the public and Commissioner Asia Williams have repeatedly predicted that the development will be slowed by additional hearings and litigation due to conflicting interpretations of code.

The Kalbachs obtained the initial CUP for a recreational facility in April, allowing them to begin construction on trails across their two contiguous 85.33-acre parcels, zoned Rural-10, off of Jumpline Landing in Sagle. To date, the lots have no power, water, sewer or permanent structures.

A recreational facility is defined in Bonner County Revised Code 12-818 as, “A place designed and equipped for the conduct of small scale and low intensity sports … operated as a business and open to the public or operated as a private club for members.”

Protesters and supporters gathered at the Bonner County Fairgrounds June 24 to testify before the Bonner County commissioners regarding the Panhandle Bike Ranch in Sagle. Photo by Soncirey Mitchell.

Facilities for activities outside of the “low intensity” classification are considered resorts or “outdoor recreational uses and amusement places” and are not permitted — even with a CUP — in residential zones.

BCRC 12-333 conditionally permits recreational facilities in rural zoning districts provided that developers demonstrate, “Adequate water supplies for drinking and fire suppression, as well as approval of sewage disposal sites and methods by the Panhandle Health District and/or the state of Idaho.”

Additionally, the site must be developed in such a way as to “minimize any adverse effects on surrounding properties. The use shall not create particular hazards to adjacent properties.”

To comply with these definitions, Bonner County Examiner Jacqueline Rucker limited the hours, days and months of operation as well as the number of race days and daily users, and stipulated that the owners must ban hazardous materials like firearms and fireworks, as well as create a stormwater, grading and erosion control plan for the existing road and future trails.

“When I forecast out the up-front investment vs. the potential revenue, with the current conditions we’re looking at about a 30-year ROI [Return on Investment], so that’s 30 years before we make one penny on the business and that’s just too long,” said Scott Kalbach, presenting his appeal at the June 24 meeting. “With a few tweaks that we’re asking for to the business — not huge changes — we think that we can get that down to 15 years and that’s still a very long time but it’s a timeframe that’s acceptable for us.”

The subsequent decision repealed the earlier restrictions, with the exception of the stormwater, grading and erosion control plan, allowing the business to remain open seven days a week, May through October 15, for hours to be determined by the owners.

The commissioners also granted the request to increase the number of daily riders and workers from 65 to 150 and allow for four yearly race days on the property. 

Opponents of the park — represented by Boise-based attorney Norman Semanko — argued that the initial CUP should never have been approved because the bike ranch does not meet the definition of a recreational facility and generates “particular hazards” that will negatively affect the neighboring homeowners.

“A sport where injuries are expected — as you heard in the testimony earlier — and where helipads are required to pick up injured people and take them to medical care are not low intensity sports,” said Semanko, citing statistics that estimated an average rate of 16.8 injuries per 1,000 hours of downhill mountain biking — far higher than downhill skiing, which is not considered a low intensity sport.

“Legally, what’s important is the fact that this fits the definition of a commercial resort or outdoor recreational use, and the staff report and the hearing examiner’s decision do nothing to examine that and make a conclusion there. And the recreational facilities conclusion is unsupported by facts,” he later added.

Semanko went on to compare the proposed course to Idaho’s nine other downhill mountain bike parks — including Bogus Basin Recreation Area and Silver Mountain Resort — stating that none “are located within an area already established [as a] rural residential neighborhood.” All comparable parks fall within commercial resorts or ski areas and therefore do not require CUPs.

The Bonner County Planning Department staff report, presented by Planner Tyson Lewis, found that “the proposal complies with what a recreational facility is defined as — mountain biking being a low intensity sport that will not dramatically change the forested properties in a detrimental way.”

Before making their recommendation, staff looked for similar businesses that had previously applied for CUPs, including Caliber Disc Golf in Colburn, which is zoned 

Agricultural/Forestry-10. When asked if they had uncovered any denied CUPs applications on parcels zoned Rural-10 — like the Panhandle Bike Ranch parcels — Lewis stated, “I tried. I wasn’t able to find good data — our new computer system is really finicky with searching for keywords.”

When asked if “low intensity” should be defined by the impact to the land, the recreationists or both, county Planning Director Jacob Gabell stated that the law does not specify, nor does it clarify how “intensity” should be measured.

“We did a minimal analysis — you can call [it] that — but we did an analysis of the definition of ‘recreational facility’ and in that I leaned on the examples that that definition includes,” said Gabell in reference to BCRC 12-818, which lists low intensity sports as including but not limited to “rafting, canoeing, tent camping, swimming, cross country skiing, hiking, hunting and fishing, horseback riding and snowmobiling.”

Gabell based his determination on the relative impact that mountain biking and the creation and maintenance of its trails has on the land, compared especially to horseback riding and snowmobiling. Williams emphasized that while she supports the bike ranch in theory, she did not believe that it met the requirements to exist in an area zoned Rural-10.

“I think it’s a great idea, but it’s not in the right zone, and conditionally, low intensity was based on the sport. It was based on the number of people that were going to use that [facility] … It is a commercial activity, but it is not situated in a commercial zone,” she said.

Semenko maintained that the development did not fall under the definition of a recreational facility, and further argued that, even if it did, it would still be in violation of the requirement to provide “water for drinking and fire suppression.”

The bike ranch has yet to publish a plan to mitigate or prevent potential fires caused by, among other things, their shuttle truck engines, exhaust or fuel; heat sources brough by campers; lithium batteries on electric bikes; and sparks emitted by pedals striking rocks, such as the one that caused the 2016 Rock Creek Fire in Washington.

Sandpoint Mayor Jeremy Grimm, speaking on behalf of the bike ranch developers in his capacity as owner of Whiskey Rock Planning + Consulting, argued that maintaining the health of the forest would mitigate fire risk, as would the bike trails themselves, which would act as barriers for any potential spreading wildfires.

“The state of Idaho’s fire suppression standards are one gallon of water on site with a fire,” he added.

Bonner County Commissioners Steve Bradshaw and Luke Omodt agreed that the bike ranch’s location within the Sagle Fire District was proof enough of an adequate water supply for fire suppression; however, the bike ranch will have to submit a fire suppression and prevention plan to both the Sagle Fire District and the Idaho Department of Lands for approval before they can officially open the park.

Water access could prove more difficult than developers anticipate, as locals warned during public comment. Residents of Five Lakes Estates, located downhill from the bike park, have a median well depth of 465 feet, with the deepest being 804 feet. Panhandle Bike Ranch’s elevation gain potentially places it even farther above the water table.

According to Gabell, the Department of Environmental Quality stipulates that a facility providing water to “more than 20 people more than 60 days a year” requires an approved public water system. To address that, commissioners added a condition to the CUP requiring developers to dig a well and receive DEQ’s official approval before the permit takes effect, thereby satisfying the requirement for a proposed 10-spot campsite.

In addition to the potential fire danger, Semenko argued that water runoff and erosion caused by frequent road and trail system use would affect the 56 homes directly downhill from the development, potentially resulting in property damage.

Using statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency, he calculated that traffic to and from the park would generate as much as 34.9 tons of dust per year, negatively impacting the health of residents and the longevity of their appliances.

Bradshaw stated that the county had no power to enforce maintenance of the private road; however, developers tentatively agreed to consider spraying magnesium chloride to mitigate dust.

After hearing testimony from more than 45 community members — the majority of whom argued against the project — and rebuttals from both sides of the issue, the commissioners spent more than an hour deliberating before approving the Kalbachs’ appeal in a 2-1 vote.

“This is about a private property owner who purchased two pieces of land, and are we going to honor the right for that property owner to do with his land as is conditionally permitted according to Bonner County revised code? [Speaking] for myself, I am,” said Omodt, arguing on behalf of the developers.

Williams, the lone dissenting vote, again acknowledged the merits and potential benefits of the bike ranch, but ultimately agreed with protesters that the Rural-10 zoning does not support a facility of this magnitude.

“We know it’s so far above what we would use a conditional use permit for, you have a page of additional conditions that even [the developers] don’t want to follow, because they wouldn’t have to follow it if the conditional use permit was very cut and dry but it’s not … It isn’t a property right to get a conditional use permit. If you want to guarantee that commercial activity, there is a zone for it.”

As of press time, the Panhandle Bike Ranch site will include an emergency helicopter pad, one acre or less of parking, one acre or less of outbuildings — including the ticket and rental booths, portable restrooms and a bike washing station — as well as an acre or less of tent camping.

According to a statement from the Five Lakes Estates appellants and shared with the Reader by Semanko in a Jun 26 email, the protesters have yet to determine their next steps, though they encourage community members to check the website for future updates.

“We are disappointed in the outcome of the hearing, but it was not unexpected,” they wrote. “We have recently seen multiple commercial projects approved in areas not zoned for the specific proposed commercial use, only to be later challenged and eventually overturned by the courts.”

The following corrections were added on July 2, 2024: Norman Semanko, legal counsel for the Five Lakes Estates community in Sagle, is based in Boise, not Coeur d’Alene, as we incorrectly reported in the June 27, 2024 paper. Semanko also misspoke when he said the average rate of injuries per 1,000 hours of downhill mountain biking was 6.8, which we then printed. The actual number should be 16.8, as was written in his presentation. We regret the errors.

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