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Understanding that the job is difficult, but also extremely important, the Kootenai County Commissioners are wasting no time getting on with the business of re-writing zoning and development regulations. On Friday and Saturday, we were pleased to be invited to participate in an interview process for the consultant team to be hired to rewrite the land use laws in the County. The Commissioners signaled that they will make a final decision on the code-writing team very soon.

In an exhausting all-day session Friday, four finalist teams interviewed round-robin-style with four panels of local interviewers. The interview panels included the County Commissioners, Planning Commissioners, planning staff from the county and the county’s municipalities, developers and private planners, and neighborhood and environmental interests. On Saturday morning, the local interviewers reconvened with the Commissioners to debrief.

The job, as all the code-writing candidates acknowledged, won’t be easy. The candidates were all candid that tough decisions left undone in the comprehensive plan (e.g. development densities) will need to be revisited and resolved sooner rather than later by the County Commissioners. All of the candidates acknowledged that the current prevalence of 5-acre-lot rural zoning is problematic in achieving the comp plan goals of rural and natural resource protection. And all of the candidates commented that the current patchwork of 1970s-era land use coding absolutely positively needs the overhaul.

The good news, as strange as it sounds, is that the Commissioners will have a very difficult final decision. Each of the consultant teams had strengths and weaknesses and differing styles and approaches. But each of the teams also brought clear and convincing competence and capability. The across-the-board consensus among interviewers during the post-interview debriefing was that the candidates for the job were more-than-qualified.

The County Commissioners and the County planning staff deserve a great deal of credit for moving the process along, and for (soon) bringing very talented professionals to our County to bring our zoning and development codes up to date.

 

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The ink is barely dry on the new Kootenai County comprehensive plan, but it’s been in the works so long, it’s as if we can’t stop working on it. The next step, of course, is for the county to re-write the zoning and development regulations to come into accord with the new plan. County officials and local leaders are evaluating potential consultants to help with the re-write this week.

Because the County Commissioners avoided putting development densities in the comprehensive plan, clearly that will be a point of contention as the regulations get written. But what else? Here is an initial list of things to watch in the regulations, but we’d like to hear your concerns too:

1. Rural densities – this was a battle that was fought to a draw in the comprehensive plan. In our view, rural character requires rural development densities. The current allowed density of one unit per five acres is too dense to be truly rural, and not dense enough for efficient growth patterns over the long term.

2. Shoreline regulation – the new comp plan provides a lot of soft language purporting to protect our waterbodies. But to do so legitimately, the development regulations will need to be much stronger than they are now.  Currently the county relies on strict and cumbersome development limits in a very narrow buffer strip along shorelines and stream banks. A proven better solution, for builders and waterways alike, would be to control development on a much larger buffer, but allow more building flexibility within the buffer too.

3. Form-based development codes – The city of Post Falls recently adopted “Smart Code” regulations, an innovative and different approach to development regulation being adopted in many communities around the Country.  Rather than zoning which relies on the regulation of the “use” of the property, the regulations deal with the “form” of the development to make a more integrated and coherent community. To use a recent fiasco in the County as an example, rather than trying to determine the proper zoning regulations to apply to something described as a “party barn” in a rural zone, a form based code would use more general performance standards — for building design, parking, noise, setbacks, signage, landscaping, traffic, etc. – appropriate for any type of development in a rural zone. In this regard, we think Kootenai County has the opportunity to do something smart and innovative, if it chooses to do so.

4. The zoning map – The text of the development regulations will apply to properties according to zones actually drawn on a county map. This is, of course, where the impacts to individual properties will be felt. But it is also where impacts to our resources will occur if the map is too accommodating to development interests. It will be important that the map keep high-density development where it is appropriate and provide specific resource protections to the specific locations where they are most needed.

5. Grandfathering – We expect (and hope) that a lot of properties currently zoned for higher sprawl-level densities will be zoned for lower rural densities under the new code. We expect that some property owners will lobby to have the higher development potential grandfathered into the new zoning. The types of properties (and property owners) which will be eligible for grandfathering, and the circumstances and time limits under which it will be allowed will be a source of controversy. As a general rule in any rezoning exercise, the less grandfathering, the better.

 

 

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It’s done! Although I’m semi snowed-in today, I got word from the Kootenai County Commissioners that the long-awaited Comprehensive Plan is complete. Signed into official status as of this morning.

According to the press release sent by the County, the process that formally began more than four years ago, was completed with three Commissioner signatures on the document this morning.  The press release describes the long and tortuous process somewhat bloodlessly:

The updating of the Plan began in the fall of 2006 with the firm Kezziah Watkins conducting “Meetings in a Box” in order to gather a wide-range of public input. In January 2007, the Kootenai County Planning and Zoning Commission (Planning Commission) began an intensive Comprehensive Plan amendment process that incorporated public comments received at the many workshops and “road show” informational meetings they conducted. Following the recommendation of the Planning Commission, the Board of County Commissioners provided additional opportunities for public review in order to gain final public and agency input.  Following an extensive review of the draft plan and supplemental public comments, the Board completed their deliberations on December 28, 2010.

The County’s press release was effusive in thanks: to the Planning Commission which clearly put in the most work; and to”the many state agencies, city mayors, councils, managers, planners, and staff from County departments for their effort in developing and reviewing this plan.”

But we thought the County was especially nice to acknowledge and thank “the hundreds of citizens who attended countless public meetings, workshops, local neighborhood meetings, and public hearings. Your thoughtful review of the plan and its goals and policies have been essential to capturing the spirit and vision of what makes and will keep Kootenai County great.”  We are pretty sure they are talking about KEA members.

Thanks and congratulations to everyone who has been to a meeting, testified at a hearing, wrote comments, or listened to me rant about it all.  The plan could have been better, but it would have been much much worse without your hard work.

 

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At a deliberation this morning, postponed from several weeks ago, the Kootenai County Commissioners signaled that they are nearing completion of the long-awaited comprehensive plan. After some unpublicized “workshops” with officials from cities on the prairie, which had criticized the plan at the most recent hearing, the Commissioners agreed to several tweaks to the most recent draft to accommodate some of their concerns. At this morning’s deliberation, the Commissioners completed all but the land use chapter, which is scheduled to be deliberated Tuesday afternoon.

Among the changes, the Commissioners agreed with KEA comments to clarify that a minimum of 70% of future development should be directed to municipalities. Commissioners did some rearranging of some of the goals and policies in some of the chapters, and made some wholesale deletions of mostly-extraneous text. Commissioners Currie and Piazza refused, however, to restore development densities into the plan – still a fatal flaw.

Based on today’s pace, and with only the land use chapter remaining, the Commissioners could complete the plan, for once and for all, on Tuesday afternoon.

 

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Kootenai Environmental Alliance provided comments, again –and hopefully for the last time — on the long-awaited draft comprehensive plan revision for Kootenai County.  In the works for four or five years at this point, the draft could gain final approval by the County Commissioners next month.

Candidates Jai Nelson and Dan Green at the comp plan hearing, perhaps discussing how they would un-screw it up. Photo by KEA BlackberryCam

The hearing was nowhere near as lengthy, or heated, as previous hearings on the plan. Commissioners Tondee and Currie were in attendance, but Commissioner Piazza, reportedly hunting, was not. After about two hours of lukewarm testimony, the Commissioners closed the hearing, but put off any decision until a regularly scheduled meeting November 18th.

The strongest opposition came from the municipalities on the prairie who were critical of the plan’s handling of regions nearest the city limits. Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin and Hayden County planning official Lisa Key represented the cities’ concerns that the plan was confusing, somewhat contradictory, and not conducive to orderly city expansion. County Commissioner Todd Tondee questioned the testimony, however, noting that the area reserved by the cities for city expansion was significantly too large, and that the county needed to assert control over these areas where it is still primarily responsible for land use decisions.

Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin, testifying. Photo by KEA BlackberryCam

Many of the comments from citizens concentrated on the need to restore explicit development densities to the plan. Many commenters suggested that without the numeric densities, the plan is an insufficient guide for the drafting of zoning ordinances and for decision-making regarding future development proposals.

County Commissioner candidates Jai Nelson and Dan Green were in attendance taking careful notes. But notable in its absence was testimony in support, or opposition, from the business and development community. The so-called “Citizens for Balance,” were nowhere to be found.  Also not testifying were the Chamber of Commerce, the Association of Realtors, and the North Idaho Building and Contractors Association, all of which testified at prior hearings.

Perhaps nobody is expecting substantial changes from the same three commissioners who have already spent a year editing the plan. Unless these three commissioners duck this decision once and for all, this could very well have been the last comp plan hearing for a very long time. We should be so lucky.

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The fourth (count ’em!) draft of a new Kootenai County Comprehensive Plan is set for yet another hearing Tuesday at 5pm. However, with the same three commissioners who took a year to edit draft number three, now considering their own draft number four, we don’t expect them to make major changes, or take the time to do major re-writes. KEA will certainly attend the upcoming hearing, we will submit comments, and we will plead our case with the commissioners. But we will not be holding our breath.

From a substantive perspective, the VAST majority of the changes the commissioners made to draft three of the comp plan are inconsequential. Of the more significant changes: (1) there was a substantial re-write of the planned communities concept, most of which will not matter, (2) the commissioners attempted to address concerns raised by the mayors of the prairie municipalities (and shared by KEA), but didn’t do a great job of it, and (3) they took all the development densities out of the plan, which is a huge and unnecessary mistake. The density decisions can be made in the zoning code revision process, but it is substantially more difficult to do so.

File Photo

From a practical perspective, however, there will be at least one new commissioner after this upcoming election — to be held exactly one week after the hearing.  On the one hand, a new set of commissioners may be able to correct the mistakes in the comp plan made by the current combination of incumbent commissioners.  On the other hand, doing so will extend the incredibly long process even further. So the question becomes: Is the county better off if the plan is adopted now, finally, as is?  Or should the county make comp plan fixes with the incoming commissioners, even if it requires us to wait for them to take office, hold hearings, and go through yet another process of making comp plan changes?

Of course, the next, more important step in the county’s land use reform process — redrafting the zoning and development ordinances – is something that really needs to be done.  Our current, horribly out-of-date zoning code dates to the 1970s.

So our view on the practical question is increasingly that Kootenai County just needs to get to the next step of revising the zoning code, and we all just need to be done with the comp plan dithering. The tough decisions over development densities have been kicked down the road by this set of Commissioners. At this point, we’re prepared to go down the road with the new Commissioners, and get those decisions made once and for all in a new zoning code.

Overall, if it were getting letter grades, this fourth comp plan draft would get about a C-minus … which is to maybe to say it’s a pretty lousy grade, but it is enough to graduate.

 

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Two interesting and somewhat interrelated items in today’s Coeur d’Alene Press:  first, that the City of Post Falls is reviewing their procedures for annexations into the City; second, that the City of Coeur d’Alene is reluctant to provide water service outside its municipal boundary in Huetter. The articles signal that both municipalities remain acutely concerned about expanding expensive city services at the periphery of their city limits.

The City of Post Falls is looking to revise annexation procedures so that developers aren’t given preliminary approvals that lead to an expectation of a final approval. Post Falls has adopted a flexible “Smart Code” zoning ordinance which modernizes its approach to development within the city limits, but requires that detailed planning work be done prior to final approval. However, the annexation process requires a preliminary approval from the City Council before developers do the more detailed project planning.  Preliminary approval for an annexation does not necessarily mean final approval for a development, but the current process allows for momentum to build, investments to be made, and expectations to develop.  As city administrator Erik Keck says in the article, the city’s priorities on growth can get lost in the current process: “We want to talk about how to make it a better process, so the council doesn’t feel it has a gun to its head that says, ‘You have to accept this,'” Keck said.

Meanwhile, the City of Coeur d’Alene’s Public Works committee declined a request by the tiny City of Huetter to consider extending water service. Huetter’s water service is below state DEQ standards and needs to be upgraded. As Jim Markely, head of Coeur d’Alene’s water department said, the system can handle the additional customers, but “The biggest point to make is that’s one of our growth tools, not extending outside city lines.” The City’s growth, in other words, should be determined by the City, not outside pressures.

All of this is occurring just as Kootenai County has released “Draft 4” of the Comprehensive Plan, which will be subject to yet another public hearing October 26th.  As seen from today’s articles, the municipalities would clearly prefer less uncontrollable pressure on their borders so that they can expand in a more orderly, affordable and planned way. As we’ve been saying all along, this can be accomplished by a strong County comp plan, which keeps rural areas rural. The County Commissioners will have another (final?) chance to fix what they broke. We hope they restore clear numeric density ranges to the comp plan — to protect rural areas and direct development into the city limits, rather than allowing development to sprawl outward.

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