By Zach Hagadone
An update to Sandpoint’s Comprehensive Plan hasn’t reached the finish line yet, but it’s getting close. After four years of work — interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic — councilors were poised to make a decision on the final draft of the document at a public hearing Oct. 4, but near the end of the three-hour meeting pulled back to table the vote until after an upcoming town hall-style workshop to gather additional feedback.
“I feel like we’ve only had four days to dive into it,” said Councilor Welker, who made the motion to table.
“This is literally the most important planning document that we’re about to adopt for the next 20 years,” he added. “This shouldn’t be the last opportunity for public feedback.”
The council voted unanimously to approve Welker’s motion, opening the way for the future public workshop, which would be followed by a council workshop and another public hearing — all with dates to be determined.
The current Comp Plan hasn’t been revised since its adoption in 2009, and, despite the update effort being put on hold by the pandemic in 2020-2022, City Planner Amy Tweeten said that “the engagement both before the pause and after the pause has resulted in consistent direction from the community in terms of vision, plans and priorities. While it seems to have dragged out, I believe the product before you is truly comprehensive and covers all the required elements.”
Miriam McGilvray, a community planner with Colorado-based consultancy firm Logan Simpson, has worked with the city on the Comp Plan update since 2019 and guided the council through an overview of the document, which she described as a “practical but aspirational long-term guide for the city.”
Broadly speaking, the plan provides, “A vision for the future, defined goals and policies and desired future land use character,” according to McGilvray’s presentation.
Using the 2009 plan as a template, the revisions focused on a number of elements that have not only changed since its adoption 14 years ago, but even since 2019. Among them, revised objectives related to urban forestry, neighborhood preservation and mixed-use development, housing affordability, coordinating water services with other jurisdictions and more.
“We really just updated the information, reaffirmed the vision and direction,” said McGilvray, “and acknowledged changes in community values since 2009.”
The biggest sticking point for councilors — and the primary reason for the decision to table the decision Oct. 4 — was first addressed during the comment period of the public hearing by residents Kyle Schreiber and Jeremy Grimm, who are running for City Council and Sandpoint mayor, respectively.
Schreiber noted that the updated document did not include language from the 2009 plan that denied the extension of urban services for low-density development within the area of city impact in order to push urban and urban-type development away from rural areas and toward incorporated cities.
“Many folks support that policy and I believe it is the way to responsibly manage growth,” he said, adding later that, “a lot of people are unhappy” about the city’s decision earlier in the summer to provide water to the 117-lot Providence Subdivision despite it being located within Kootenai’s area of city impact.
Grimm agreed, saying that the extension of urban services into the county “can accelerate urban sprawl” and spur growth in areas where it can’t be efficiently served.
Welker cautioned the community to be “overly aggressive about the removal of this language” and suggested the furor over the Providence Subdivision is the result of “a failure of the city of Kootenai, not the city of Sandpoint.”
Still, he recognized that it has “been a really hot button issue for the last couple of months” and it needs to be hashed out in a conversation with the public in order to explain exactly why or why not that language should be included in the updated Comp Plan.
“It’s going to come back to haunt us if we don’t have this conversation in this part of the process,” Welker said.
During both the public forum and the comment portion of the public hearing, multiple residents spoke passionately about urban forestry and the city’s commitment to protecting trees. A group had gathered at City Hall at 4:30 p.m. to protest the council’s decision Sept. 28 to approve the final contracts for the James E. Russell Sports Center at Travers Park, construction of which will result in the removal of about 20 trees.
Though city officials have responded to outcry over the placement of the $7.5 million enclosed tennis and pickleball facility at Travers and subsequent tree removal by stating that three times as many trees will be replanted, many others have continued to push back on a number of fronts, with a majority pressing for a reconsideration to relocate the sports center to an area that won’t require removing the trees.
Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad cut short any further testimony on that item during the public forum, citing rules that comments can’t be directed toward matters already decided by the council. Still, the issue came up again and again in the context of greater public involvement in city decisions and, regarding the Comp Plan, which calls for inclusion of specific language related to “heritage trees” and providing for flexibility in zoning codes that would grant incentives for their preservation.
Local architect Reid Weber said a Comp Plan goal related to heritage trees should be “more than just an action item” in the interest of being proactive and addressing the kinds of frustrations expressed by those who spoke — or tried to speak — regarding Travers Park.
To the idea of providing incentives to protect heritage trees, Tweeten said, “While that sounds simple, when you’re creating incentives or waivers to zoning for something that is living and you’re allowing a deviation from a structure and the next owner comes and they decide they don’t want to preserve that heritage tree, those are the kinds of things we really need to think about … It’s more of a challenge than it sounds.”
Ultimately, underpinning most of the public comment throughout the meeting was frustration that citizens felt that they haven’t been adequately informed of or involved in high-profile decisions such as the James E. Russell Sports Center and the Comp Plan.
“I sometimes feel like we are a voice not to be heard,” said resident Ann Giantvalley. “Bring us to the table; we need to have our voices heard.”
“We have longevity and we have history here, and history is in the making,” said resident Sally Moon, whose family she said came to the area in 1904. “I would just appreciate it if we had a voice in that.”
“I’ve lived here for almost 48 years and I love this place and the people in it,” said resident Beth Pederson. “And I just request that the general public is listened to.”
Additional details regarding the date and time of future public involvement opportunities related to the Comp Plan update will be published when they are known. Check sandpointidaho.gov, the city of Sandpoint’s Facebook page and sandpointreader.com for updates.
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