By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Bonner County commissioners upheld approval of a minor land division off Wood View Road during an appeal hearing Aug. 29, attended by neighbors of the proposed division who argued it would set a dangerous precedent for other suburban zones in the county.
The MLD application — filed by new Planning Director Jacob Gabell in June, before he was hired for the position — proposes taking the director’s private 6.27 acres and splitting it into four: one 3.49-acre lot, one 1.06-acre lot and two one-acre lots.
While MLDs are typically processed administratively by the Planning Department, the Wood View Acres proposal went before the commissioners due to Gabell’s position as both director and applicant.
Gabell was not present at the hearing due to National Guard obligations.
The property in question is zoned Suburban, where lots must remain at least 2.5 acres unless they receive urban services such as water and sewer. According to Gabell’s application, he plans to service each divided lot with its own septic system and have a well drilled to service the three one-acre lots.
Planning staff recommended approval of the file on the grounds that Bonner County Code defines “urban services,” in part, as “publicly or privately maintained water supply and distribution systems.”
Liz Iha, who represented the Wood View Road neighbors in the appeal, argued that interpreting the code to allow for a single well servicing several lots to qualify as “urban services” would be setting a precedent for unchecked growth in Suburban zones. She also alleged that planning staff had not adequately considered the property rights of Gabell’s neighbors, including possible traffic, ecological and land value impacts.
Chistopher Davis also presented on behalf of the concerned neighbors, bringing into question the possible conflict of interest associated with the commissioners ruling on a file brought by one of their employees.
“It’s not enough for you to say that you have no conflict, because there is the appearance of impropriety, and the appearance is enough to cause an ethical issue,” Davis said.
In concluding her appeal presentation, Iha doubled down on Davis’ comments.
“Many people in this room have reached that place — we’ve reached that place of undermined trust and loss of faith in the integrity of our decision-making process,” she said.
A dozen people commented against the MLD, urging the board to appeal its decision. Many of them focused on the “urban services” issue, with Reg Crawford testifying to the “gymnastics” the county had to employ to interpret the code in such a way that the MLD could be approved.
“This is an unacceptable stretch for code that is designed to define our county’s growth and is supposed to be used for planning,” she said.
Many members of the public expressed concern about the perceived conflict of interest in having the board rule on the file, rather than using a party outside of the county — a sticking point for the county commissioners.
“That fact that he became the planning director has no bearance [sic] on this file whatsoever — none,” said Commissioner Steve Bradshaw. “For somebody to implicate that favoritism went with it kinda agitates the hell out of me.”
In her rebuttal to planning staff, Iha pointed to the quick turnaround of the appeal, as well as the fact that Gabell requested during the MLD’s original hearing that any appeal be heard after he’d returned from National Guard duty.
“We’re looking at unanswered emails, we’re looking at unanswered calls, we’re looking at unanswered office visits and we’re looking at loss of due process,” Iha said, noting the $380 cost to file the appeal.
“For us to have to pull this together in the time we had to pull it together and then not be given $380-worth, I would say, of time to prepare for this quasi-judicial appeal is upsetting,” she added.
Commissioners voted unanimously to uphold their approval of the MLD, with Commissioner Dan McDonald stating that in the first hearing the board “spent a great deal of time unpacking definitions, so it was very clear that ‘urban water’ doesn’t mean ‘urban water,’ because right in there it talks about shared systems, private systems, and we do have them.”
He added that the MLD proposal “should have been a slam dunk” had the applicant not been the planning director, therefore requiring the public hearing process to take place.
“Staff did an excellent job, completely unbiased. They ran [Gabell] through the ringer, and rightly so,” McDonald said. “This thing couldn’t have been handled cleaner or better than it has. … Just trying to claim that there’s an appearance of impropriety is pathetic and ridiculous. It really is. … It’s disturbing to me that we have people in this county who try to make these pathetic arguments, that go after neighbors. It’s just sad. It’s not the Bonner County that I know.”
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