County to reconsider 700-acre Selle Valley rezone

Hearing scheduled for April 20

By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Reader Staff

Bonner County commissioners voted unanimously March 22 in favor of scheduling a reconsideration hearing for a 700-acre zone change in the Selle Valley, which had been approved in February but is now subject to a challenge by citizens concerned about the potential impacts of a large-scale development in the area.

An aerial shot of the Selle Valley. Photo by Max Zuberbuhler.

Located on the east side of Colburn Culver Road, the land in question is owned by the Skinner and Otis families, who are listed on the rezone application as Pack River Partners, LLC. The acreage currently hosts a house and seven outbuildings, according to the application, but is made up of mostly undeveloped pasture and timber.

Pack River Partners submitted a zone change request in June 2021, asking that their property be changed from a 20-acre parcel minimum to a 10-acre minimum. Concerned neighbors see the request as a precursor to a housing development, which could bring more than 70 new homes to the valley. 

Despite Don Skinner’s testimony during public hearings on the matter that he doesn’t have “any plans” to develop the land, the June application lists “landowner flexibility” as a reason for the request, as well as an avenue to create “much needed housing for expected population growth.”

While the Bonner County Planning and Zoning Commission recommended denial of the application in November on the grounds that infrastructure — such as schools, roads and water availability — would not be able to support development, the board of county commissioners voted 2-1 to approve the request following a four-hour hearing in February. Commissioners Dan McDonald and Jeff Connolly voted in favor of the zone change, while Steve Bradshaw voted against.

“I get the concerns about wells, I get the concerns about water, about impact on wildlife, the school district as well, but that would come only if the applicant chose to develop the property, and at that point there would come a whole other set of hearings,” McDonald said at the time, referring to the subdivision process that would be triggered in the case of development.

Commissioners changed their tune March 22 while deliberating whether to honor a request submitted by land use watchdog group Keep Bonner County Rural and Kristina Kingsland to reconsider the rezone. According to Deputy Prosecutor Bill Wilson, serving as legal counsel to the board, state statute actually requires commissioners to consider potential development impacts as early as the rezone stage.

“The background here is that our code — our local code — does not specifically call out this criteria that requires you to pay particular consideration to the provision of public services by other political subdivisions, like schools, even our own road department,” he said, adding later: “This is a requirement that comes out of the state statute under the Local Land Use Planning Act.”

Wilson said that the argument in favor of waiting until the subdivision process to address potential impacts to local infrastructure makes sense when considering only Bonner County Revised Code, mostly due to its “ambiguity.” In reality, however, he said Idaho Code also deserves consideration.

“I think that the state code does actually require us to take those [issues] up and think and talk about them during deliberations — even at the rezone stage,” he said. “That is probably different than how we’ve handled some rezones in the past, and it kind of requires us also to get into hypotheticals because we don’t know what the development will be. But we still have to try to honor the language in the state statute.”

Wilson acknowledged that while the parties filing for reconsideration leveled nine deficiencies against the board, he only found the alleged failure to comply with the Local Land Use Planning Act worthy of addressing in a reconsideration hearing. 

Commissioners agreed, voting unanimously to revisit the decision at a newly scheduled Wednesday, April 20 public hearing to “deliberate and determine that particular consideration has been given to the effects of the proposed zone change on the delivery of services by any political subdivision providing public services, including school districts,” according to the motion.

Also during the discussion surrounding the reconsideration, Wilson acknowledged the “perpetual problems” associated with the county’s method for soliciting comments from agencies when an application such as a zone change comes before the planning department. 

Under current operations, planning staff sends a letter soliciting comments from fire districts, state agencies, schools, road departments and more — most of whom do not respond. Current county policy interprets a non-response as approval, Wilson said.

This system has drawn vocal opposition at recent hearings, including criticism from Keep Bonner County Rural.

“The planning department is responsible for getting this information. It’s not the agencies’ responsibility. This is not their primary focus, right? If they’re doing schools, they need to do schools. But, they need to be shown how it impacts them,” said KBCR member Susan Bowman. “So I would recommend that you do it in a different way rather than saying, ‘Well, they didn’t comment so they don’t care,’ because I know that’s not true.

“It’s not an appropriate way to do it, in my opinion,” she added.

Wilson recommended that prior to the April 20 reconsideration hearing, planning staff resend the letter soliciting agency comments on the Pack River Partners zone change.

“If we are going to end up in litigation over this issue, I would hope that a reviewing court would look at the willingness to take the issue back up, and that would be proof that you’re really trying to honor the state statute and look at those issues before you make a decision,” he said.

Counsel also previewed a potential change to county code which would help mitigate subdivision concerns as early as the rezone stage: a development agreement ordinance, which would allow commissioners to impose conditions to any future development early on.

“We recognize that this is something in our code that needs to be addressed and we’re working on it, but we’re working with the code that we have right now, and that’s why we need to go back and take a look,” Wilson said.

Commissioners will reconsider the file April 20 at the Bonner County Administration Building, located at 1500 Highway 2 in Sandpoint.

“Improvement is incremental,” said Kingsland, who signed the reconsideration request. 

“I’m not here to beat you up about anything that’s happened in the past,” she told commissioners at the March 22 meeting. “I’ll just say thank you for moving forward with looking at things in a new light.”

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