By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Bonner County commissioners voted May 4 to uphold their approval of a zone change to more than 700 acres in the Selle Valley, marking the latest development in an issue that’s drawn widespread concern about the valley’s ability to support large-scale development.
The Skinner and Otis families, known jointly as Pack River Partners, LLC, submitted an application in June 2021 requesting that their Selle Valley property — zoned Ag-Forest — be rezoned to allow 10-acre parcel minimums, rather than the currently allowed 20-acre minimum. The Bonner County Planning and Zoning Commission recommended denial of the application in November 2021, citing concerns about lack of adequate infrastructure. In February, the BOCC voted to approve the zone change, arguing that concerns about infrastructure would best be discussed during a future subdivision process, should it come to pass.
Commissioners voted March 22 to reconsider the file. The reconsideration request — signed by Dave Bowman, chairman of citizens’ group Keep Bonner County Rural, and Kristina Kingsland on behalf of nearly 30 neighbors — argued there were several inadequacies in the board’s February decision.
Deputy Prosecutor Bill Wilson recommended the commissioners reconsider only one of those alleged shortcomings: that the board did not follow Idaho’s Local Land Use Planning Act, which requires that “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.”
In other words, according to Idaho Code, potential development impacts to local infrastructure must be considered as early as the rezone stage.
Commissioners were scheduled to take up the reconsideration April 20, but the hearing was postponed to May 4.
Planner Daniel Britt presented a staff report at the top of the hearing, paying particular attention to new comments from public agencies obtained in the time since commissioners voted to hear the reconsideration. He noted that he “took the extra step and emailed each one of these agencies individually” in an effort to increase participation.
Additional comments highlighted in Britt’s presentation May 4 included feedback from Bonner County Road and Bridge, stating that local roads would likely be able to handle increased traffic should the density increase. Lake Pend Oreille School District also provided historical enrollment data and stated that an “additional portable or construction project” may be necessary at Northside Elementary School should enrollment increase. Meanwhile, Northern Lights Utility Company said that it “has the capacity to extend services.”
While the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office was not asked for comment, the office provided a statement that “doubling the density in this area” would stretch law enforcement “thin,” and some of the parcels are “impassable for emergency vehicles at least part of the year.”
Representing the Northside Fire District, Vernon Roof said preliminary data suggests calls to the fire service could increase by 2% should the property be developed.
Attorney Preston Carter, of Boise-based law firm Givens Pursley, represented Keep Bonner County Rural, Kingsland and the other parties requesting the reconsideration. He emphasized that while property rights are important, “the applicant does not have a property right to change [their] zoning,” and commissioners should follow the “particular consideration” clause under the Local Land Use Planning Act to ensure that the valley’s carrying capacity is adequately considered.
“If there is not sufficient information in the record to fulfill this duty, then the application should be denied,” he said.
Representing the landowners, Sandpoint attorney John Finney said that Skinner was “not doing this in anticipation of development,” and simply wanted his land zoned in the way it had been before the county adopted the 2008 Comp Plan. Furthermore, he added that his client wasn’t asking to change the property from its current Ag-Forest designation.
More than a dozen attendees at the hearing spoke in favor of overturning the board’s decision to approve the zone change, many of them pointing to the inevitable stress on Northside Elementary School, the local aquifer, roads and other public services should development occur on the property.
“I encourage not making decisions based on unknown information that can have really big impacts on people’s lives,” Kingsland said.
Sagle resident Susan Drumheller recommended the county conduct research to better understand the effects of increased density in rural areas, citing studies that showed “sprawl” ends up costing taxpayers.
“Let’s figure out where the county could actually grow the community’s wealth and not overburden taxpayers,” Drumheller said. “I suspect we would find it would make no sense to increase density here next to Northside School on what has served as agricultural and forest land for decades.”
Selle Valley resident Susan Bowman has been a vocal critic of the county’s method for gathering comment from public agencies — that is, sending out a letter soliciting comment and interpreting a non-response as approval.
“Without analysis it cannot possibly be said that public services are being given ‘particular consideration,’” she said.
Commissioners Dan McDonald and Jeff Connolly deliberated on the issue following the comments. Commissioner Steve Bradshaw was absent.
Referring to the lack of a subdivision proposal, McDonald said, “it seems futile to discuss this now because we don’t really know what it is. We have an applicant saying ‘I don’t want to develop.’ We don’t have a development plan, which we desperately need to have one.”
Connolly moved to deny the request for reconsideration — in effect upholding the board’s prior decision to approve the zone change request. McDonald seconded the motion and both voted in favor.
“What we did here was we made sure that we clarified for the record that the law has been followed,” Connolly said.
Asked whether they would be seeking further legal action against the Pack River Partners zone change following the hearing, Kingsland told the Reader: “When I signed on to this reconsideration I wanted consideration of the facts. I am still committed to having data analyzed as required by state statute, so if we have to file for judicial review to make that happen, I’m in.”
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