County approves separation of planning and zoning commissions

New two-commission system meant to improve efficiency with Comp Plan overhaul

By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Reader Staff

The Board of Bonner County Commissioners voted unanimously Jan. 12 to do away with the county’s current Planning and Zoning Commission in favor of a new, two-commission system. As a result, Bonner County will feature both a seven-member planning commission and five-member zoning commission, created under an ordinance set to go into effect March 30, 2022.

The Bonner County administration building. Courtesy photo.

Planning Director Milton Ollerton, who presented the code change to the Bonner County commissioners at the Jan. 12 hearing, said that Idaho law allows for either a combo commission like the one the county currently has, or the separation of the planning and zoning components.

“Having more people involved in this process, I see as a positive,” he said.

Ollerton said that the Bonner County Planning and Zoning Commission held 28 meetings in 2021, and considered 123 files that required a public hearing. In 2020, that number was only 74. The workload has diminished the commission’s ability to perform an increasingly pressing duty: to revisit — and revise — the county’s Comprehensive Plan, parts of which haven’t been updated in 20 years.

“In that 20 years, the population has increased by some 11,000 individuals,” Ollerton said. “As the county continues to change and land use continues to change, the Comprehensive Plan has not been updated in that many years. So there is a lot of work to do.”

Under the new ordinance, the Planning Commission will work on the Comp Plan; consider amendments to the Comp Plan, zoning code and county-initiated zone changes; and work on issues surrounding Areas of City Impact. 

“More legislative type of work, if you will,” Ollerton said.

A vital piece of the Planning Commission’s work will be implementing the subarea plans from across the county.

“The challenge is that the Planning and Zoning Commission, this past year, has been so tied up in hearing land use files that they have not had the time to work on these subarea plans and integrate them into the Comprehensive Plan,” Ollerton said. “This would give the county an opportunity to further this work more urgently and be able to address the growth.”

The Zoning Commission will hear what the director called “quasi-judicial land use files,” including landowner-initiated zone changes, as well as applications for subdivisions, variances, conditional use permits and special use permits.

While the county has considered hiring outside consultants to help update the Comp Plan, Ollerton said the two-commission system is the route his department has settled on.

“I think that the community is better served by staff doing this work, and allowing the community to be involved as much as possible in this work,” he said. “It may take a little bit longer, but I think the end product will be a lot better, and I think it will be a whole lot more meaningful to the residents of Bonner County because they are the ones who will have the most say in those documents and how they look.”

Those interested in applying for either commission are asked to submit a letter of interest. Applicants would then sit for interviews with the Bonner County commissioners.

“I think that there is enough interest in planning and zoning in Bonner County that the board could fill these 12 spots,” Ollerton said.

That interest has seemed to only grow over the past year, with citizen watchdog groups like Project 7B and Keep Bonner County Rural building up their followings and encouraging increased public involvement in land use issues. Susan Bowman and her husband Dave, both of KBCR, voiced their opposition to the commission changes on Jan. 12.

“This amendment before you today — it’s not about finishing the Comp Plan. This amendment will create a new Zoning Commission and will make it easier to churn out the rezone applications,” Susan said, adding later: “Creating a hand-picked Zoning Commission to churn out rezones faster is not what the people of this county want, nor do we want to have to sue our own county to enforce our zoning laws.”

Susan Drumheller of Project 7B urged the board to send the code amendment to the Planning and Zoning Commission, which was not formally required to hear the file before it went to the county commissioners. P&Z Vice Chair Don Davis did, however, voice support for the code change during the public comment portion of the hearing.

“This feels like it’s being rushed, even though perhaps there have been some internal conversations,” Drumheller said.

Asked whether the county could place a temporary moratorium on zone change applications and other development-related requests until they were caught up, Deputy Prosecutor Bill Wilson said that Idaho Code requires there to be a real emergency.

“Simply to issue a moratorium because we’re backlogged — I don’t think that would be a legally sufficient reason to do that,” he said.

Ollerton assured the board that the decision to form separate commissions “wasn’t taken lightly,” and that conversations with Latah County’s planning director, who lauded her county’s two-commission system, have only made him more certain that it is the right move for Bonner County. Commissioners agreed, casting a unanimous roll-call vote in favor of the amendment to county code.

“To be honest, these guys are working too hard for a volunteer-status type of job,” said Commissioner Jeff Connolly, in reference to the current county P&Z Commission.

“There’s a lot of distrust about why this would be done, but I just don’t see it,” he added. “I see this as a good move for Bonner County and a way to get the Comp Plan done in a timely fashion.”

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