Disappointingly bringing an end to a long process, lame-duck Commissioners Rick Currie and Rich Piazza outvoted Commissioner Todd Tondee today to approve a site-disturbance permit for a roadway through a frequently flooded, contaminated property along the Coeur d’Alene River near Medimont. The proposal, from developer / realtor John Beutler, would provide new access to an unbuilt subdivision along the River.
Community members and environmental interests (including KEA) opposed the project as unnecessary in purpose and problematic in its design. More to the point, the County simply shouldn’t be permitting permanent roads in an area which floods frequently in non-extraordinary high-water events. Especially when such flooding brings contamination each and every time.
Today’s final public hearing was purportedly to review information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which had previously denied the project. However, the Corps had also given indications that it had done so “without prejudice” and that the developer could re-apply for approvals. In an email released by the County, the Corps of Engineers declined to attend the County’s hearing.
Commissioner Tondee recommended that the permit be denied as a hearing examiner had recommended. Tondee said that there was no objective information in the file regarding whether the road would contribute to additional flood damage, whether it would divert flood waters, or whether it would affect flood storage capacity. Tondee also noted that the frequent flooding would contaminate and re-contaminate the properties with toxic sediments flowing from the Silver Valley, and that such contamination would be a threat to the public’s safety.
Commissioner Piazza voted to approve the road, and cited to a pre-decisional report from the Corps of Engineers that seemed to address some of the concerns. But that report was not available to Director Clark when he was making the decision. Moreover, the report was not part of any formal decision issued by the Corps, but a preliminary investigation.
Commissioner Currie broke the tie, calling the proposal “an opportunity.” Currie said that he was aware of the potential for contamination issue and would agree to approval under a condition that the applicant would agree to a deed restriction which would require all future property owners to remediate their properties within two years of a flood event causing contamination. If property owners don’t comply, then the County could perform the cleanup and send a bill to the property owners. Currie noted that the property had been subdivided long ago and that the properties could be developed “by barge, if they had to,” so the road, he speculated, could be the less intrusive option.
It isn’t immediately clear what the “deed restrictions” would actually say, and it isn’t immediately clear whether such restrictions apply to the road alone or all the subdivision properties, and it isn’t at all clear whether such a restriction could even be enforced.
In terms of what county commissioners are supposed to do in land use decision-making, this is one of the worst I’ve seen. This is a road that will be frequently underwater, and providing access to properties that are contaminated and will be re-contaminated over and over and over again.
The decision sets a terrible procedurally as well. The planning director made a decision with the information he had available to him. But when the applicant appealed to the Board of County Commissioners, they supplied pages and pages of new information. Now, there is lessened motivation for a developer to give a complete application to the Planning Department. Any facts and supporting documentation can simply wait until an appeal before the Board is taken.
Again, another poor decision by this Board underscores the need for better and more protective ordinances, new hearing procedures, and decision-makers with a more appropriate view of protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public they represent.