By Mayor Shelby Rognstad
Last week the Sandpoint City Council reviewed a report from Leland Consulting, a firm that specializes in economic development, strategic growth and public private partnerships. The city contracted Leland to review its land use policy and provide some recommendations for managing future growth and encouraging the kind of growth that Sandpoint wants.
Our little town has been growing rapidly over the last several years. We’ve seen dramatic increases in property values as our land and housing inventory continue to shrink. Demand for housing dramatically outpaces supply exacerbating the cost of housing. This impacts workers who are unable to afford to live here and employers who are unable to attract and retain a workforce for the same reason.
To develop the report, Leland analyzed demographic and economic conditions, housing, employment and the gap between demand and remaining land capacity. They compared Sandpoint’s data to Bonner County, Spokane and Kootenai counties and the North Idaho region as a whole. Leland was asked to help the city develop a strategy to best allocate its limited land and infrastructure resources to meet the community’s needs as outlined in the Comprehensive Plan. This in turn enables the city to steer private development in the right direction so we get the kind of development that is consistent with the community’s vision. The development community also benefits from a good plan and policies that support a clear vision.
There were a number of key findings that stood out.
Our region, and Sandpoint specifically, has seen incredible growth over the last several years. This growth is almost entirely due to in-migration and those new residents are mostly higher income households. Sandpoint will be challenged to meet that growth as its water and wastewater infrastructure are inadequate to meet future demand.
New development is generally not affordable for those on the lower end of the income spectrum due to construction costs, land prices and financing availability. The private sector is not likely to ever build housing to serve the middle- and especially low-income earners without public subsidy simply because housing is too costly to build in today’s environment.
Even with increased wages, housing costs are hurting employers’ ability to hire and retain workers. Meanwhile, the shortage of local housing is leading to increased traffic from commuting which adds additional cost and stress to the workforce.
One of Sandpoint’s greatest assets is our diversified economy. Unlike typical resort towns that rely solely on the service industry, Sandpoint is home to healthy manufacturing, health care, education and technology sectors. Leland recognized this strength in its report. However, despite a healthy economic outlook, the shortage of workforce housing threatens the future viability of our economic vitality across all sectors. If we are not able to address the housing problem, the future looks bleak for Sandpoint and our region.
Developable land is dwindling, pushing development to other communities (from which workers commute) or onto smaller infill sites where construction is less efficient, driving costs higher. Limited land also impacts job growth as larger-scale employers tend to have specific needs for land size, location and infrastructure, so Sandpoint must maintain a variety of commercial/industrial sites to provide opportunities for the attraction and expansion of a range of industries.
Sandpoint’s Area of City Impact — the area into which the city is expected to grow — extends far beyond a serviceable area and is mostly suitable for lower-density residential development, which is very expensive to serve with city infrastructure. The ACI also couldn’t accommodate industrial growth, which makes existing industrial land all the more a precious commodity as it can’t be easily replaced or repurposed once it’s developed.
Leland recommended a number of action items to help the city meet its goals to support housing affordability and economic growth. In my next several articles, I will discuss the most important of these items that are already being addressed by the city, including the city’s water and wastewater infrastructure.
In the meantime, I wish everyone a happy holiday season.
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