County needs to tighten reins on spot zoning

‘This form of rezoning is changing our county but it is not based on a plan’

By Kristina Kingsland
Reader Contributor

Zoning is a term that refers to the set of laws enacted by the county or city that define how property can be used, how small the land can be subdivided in each area, what types of buildings and how many can be built there, and what types of business can be conducted in an area or zone. The zoning map is the law that guides people looking to purchase land. It provides the most comprehensive and up-to-date information available to show what zone overlays each property and how much distance there is between a property and the nearby zones. 

Kristina Kingsland. Courtesy photo.

This is important information so that people can properly locate themselves to best accommodate their lifestyle. If their dream is to run a day care out of their home and to have their mother live on their property in an additional dwelling unit, they will want to be sure that these things are allowed in the zone where they purchase land. If they have lived next door to a small-lot subdivision in the past and now wish to be further from that type of population density, they will want to purchase land that is further from zones where these are allowed. 

These types of laws are the norm across our great state. Idaho passed its first planning and zoning legislation in 1935 and in 1975 passed the Local Land Use Planning Act, which set out many of the state statutes we operate under today. 

This all sounds straightforward but it gets more complicated when a property owner wants to change the zoning of their property. Bonner County has a process in place where owners can apply to have their zoning changed. This process involves applying with the Planning Department for the Zoning Commission and the county commissioners to conduct public hearings on the application and approve or deny the request. 

Property owners typically apply to have their zoning changed because they want to do something with the land that is not allowed in the existing zone. Often what they want to do is subdivide the property into parcels smaller than the established zone minimum. This can seem innocuous enough, but it undermines the effectiveness of the zone itself, it changes the experience of all the other landowners in the zone and it confers a discriminatory benifit on that one landowner. 

If a person purchases a property in an area zoned for 10-acre minimum size parcels for, say, $300,000 and then has the zoning changed to allow five-acre parcels, that would then be worth $250,000 or thereabout each — they increase their value substantially. This economic incentive is encouraging property owners to apply for zone changes all over our county. 

There are statutes, code and ordinances that attempt to determine how these rezone applications are considered. Idaho State Statute 67-6511 includes this guidance: “Particular consideration shall be given to the effects of any proposed zone change upon the delivery of services by any political subdivision providing public services, including school districts, within the planning jurisdiction.” 

Bonner County Code Title 12 stipulates: “12-216: EVALUATION OF AMENDMENT PROPOSALS: Staff and the Governing Bodies shall review the particular facts and circumstances of each proposal submitted and shall determine whether there is adequate evidence that the proposal is in accordance with the general and specific objectives of the comprehensive plan [Ord. 501, 11-18-2008.]” 

By state direction, we are asked to consider the effect of these rezones and the increased population that comes with them on the publicly maintained roads, on the water systems or groundwater resources, on the sewer systems or the efficacy of septic systems, on the fire protection and emergency services, and on the school systems in the area that is being rezoned. 

Our Comprehensive Plan implementation — Chapter 2.8 Public Services, Facilities and Utilities — has a clearly stated goal: “Future development shall provide adequate services and should not adversely impact the services or utilities of present-day users.” 

Both short-term and long-term effects need to be taken into consideration because once changed, that zoning runs with the land when it is sold and future owners will expect to use it to the full extent of the allowed activity.

We are not in compliance with this guidance when we are rezoning piece by piece without evaluating what the cumulative effects will be on the greater area. If we are overloading the roads or over burdening our school systems who will pay to expand these services? Not the developers of these properties who pocketed the increased value. We, the taxpayers, will pay that bill.

This form of rezoning is changing our county but it is not based on a plan, it will have an effect going forward but we are not considering what those effects will be nor are we directing them. Spot zoning is not in compliance with Idaho Statute, nor is it in compliance with Bonner County Code. Spot zoning is widely known to be an illegal act. 

Wikipedia has this to say about spot zoning: “The small size of the parcel is not the sole defining characteristic of a spot zone. Rather, the defining characteristic is the narrowness and unjustified nature of the benefit to the particular property owner, to the detriment of a general land use plan or public goals. The rezoning may provide unjustified special treatment that benefits a particular owner, while undermining the pre-existing rights and uses of adjacent property owners.” 

American Law Reports provides insight on determining if the rezone is an example of illegal spot zoning: The most widely accepted tests for determining illegal spot zoning — sometimes stated in combination, sometimes separately — are whether the zoning of the parcel in question is in accordance with a comprehensive zoning plan, whether the zoning of the subject parcel is compatible with the uses in the surrounding area, and whether the zoning of the subject property serves the public welfare or merely confers a discriminatory benefit on the owner of the property. 

Having a process in place for property owners to ask for their zoning to be changed is appropriate, but this process should comply with state statute and consider the effects of these changes cumulatively and in the long term. The test to avoid illegal spot zoning must be applied — does this change to the zoning map serve the public welfare or does it only benefit this one particular property owner? 

Our rural water systems are already at maximum capacity, our schools are at full enrollment and if all the properties were built out to the current zoning, our road systems would be inadequate. We must make a plan to address these issues, not just exacerbate the problem. Spot zoning that leaves the rest of us picking up the tab must stop.

Kristina Kingsland has lived in North Idaho since 1976 and served on the Bonner County Zoning Commission from May 2022 until her removal by commissioners in August 2022.

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