The Kootenai County Commissioners got an up-close look at the current condition of the County zoning code last Thursday night. Faced with a long-running and messy decision over a “party barn” in a rural zone at the Washington state line, the Commissioners found themselves stuck in a procedural morass that was only made possible by the currently antiquated approach to zoning, and which would have been so much simpler under a more modern code.
Although the strictly environmental impacts of a “party barn” facility are probably minimal, the impacts on a rural community could be significant. For example, traffic, noise, hours of operation, and the availability of public safety and other services are concerns that any neighborhood might have. Yet, the county code isn’t designed around impacts, it is designed around “uses.” And this is where the party barn — and the County — got into trouble. What exactly IS a party barn? How do you classify it under the county’s 1970s vintage zoning code.
The county’s old-school Euclidian zoning scheme is based on a general rule that commercial uses go in commercial zones, industrial uses in industrial zones, and residential uses in residential zones. Exceptions to the general rule are allowed only if they fit a set of specifically enumerated “conditional uses” within a particular zone.
The party barn applied for a conditional use called a “commercial resort” which would be allowed in the rural residential zone where it was located. Over the objections of neighbors, the county planning staff and the previous Board of County Commissioners approved the classification and approved the conditional use permit. The problem, though, is that in Kootenai County, a “commercial resort” is defined as:
“a privately owned, outdoor recreation area, operated for profit. A commercial resort may include permanent facilities for overnight and seasonal living, camping areas, recreational vehicle parks, and for limited commercial activities associated with convenience goods and services that serve to enhance the primary recreational use or facility.”
When the neighbors appealed the prior Board’s decision to a court, the judge issued an overly-lengthy opinion that pointed out the simple and obvious problem:
The problem with [the county's] determination is patently obvious. [The county] finds the proposed use of applicant’s barn located on applicant’s land for a wedding facility inside that barn to be a “commercial resort.” But a “commercial resort is defined only as an outdoor recreation area,” and none of the examples of an “outdoor recreation facility” are indoor activities.
The judge takes 20 pages to explain, but on page 14 he says in his own bold and underline type, “Indoors is different from outdoors” and “A wedding is different than a convenience food store.“
So, on Thursday night, the County Commissioners wrestled with the implications of the Judge’s decision. If it’s not a commercial resort, what is it? And once it is decided what it is, is it allowed in the rural zone in the quiet valley near the state line? Ultimately, the Commissioners couldn’t find an appropriate “conditional uses” and had to revert to the general rule, it’s a plain vanilla commercial use, and therefore it belongs in a commercial zone not a rural one.
Although this is almost certainly the right substantive result in this case, nobody can be really happy with how it was achieved. The general Euclidian rule is so obviously problematic: Rural areas can handle commercial activity if it is appropriate for the rural lifestyle. But using Euclidian zoning to define every single use that will or will not be allowed is doomed to failure in this modern age of new and mixed uses.
More modern form-based or performance-based zoning is more flexible and more appropriate. For example, if parking and traffic and noise are the real practical issues, then the zoning code should regulate parking and traffic and noise. The standards need to be thoughtful and they need to be rigorous in protecting rural (and environmental) values. But, if the property looks rural, feels rural, and doesn’t impact rural neighbors, then it simply shouldn’t matter what the use is.
A party barn shouldn’t be allowed in a rural area because loud amplified music and a hundred cars at a time isn’t compatible with rural neighbors. Not just because it is a commercial venture that is primarily indoors.
UPDATE 5/18: Here’s a Spokesman Review article on the dispute.