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Posts Tagged ‘development regulations’

Faced with a subdivision proposal on a steep hillside above Hayden Lake, the Kootenai County Commissioners struggled today with the County’s subdivision ordinances and denied the request. The subdivision would have placed some 34 homes on steep slopes and erodible soils just above Hayden Lake – not far from where East Hayden Lake Road washed out in the recent spring rains.

The Commissioners wrestled with the fact that they thought some development could occur at the site, but not to the extent that was proposed, and the proposal was not in accordance with badly-drafted development rules. Commissioners Dan Green and Jai Nelson voted to deny the subdivision request on the grounds that it did not avoid steep slopes, “did not contribute to the orderly development” of the community, “did not create lots of reasonable utility and livability,” and it would have imposed “an unreasonable burden” on future lot owners. Nelson was further concerned about potential stormwater and soil stability impacts on Hayden Lake. Commissioner Todd Tondee disagreed, and thought that the subdivision complied with the requirements and could be engineered to accommodate the slopes and soils and difficult drainage.

In particular, one procedural step in a problematic section of the development code became one focus for the Commissioners frustration:

Section 10-4-5: CONSERVATION DESIGN PROCEDURE: 

Conservation subdivisions shall be designed according to the following procedure: …

…Step Three:  Determine zoning districts and expected numbers of base and bonus lots.  Select building sites positioned to avoid slopes in excess of 15% and to take advantage of views and green space.  Note:  Though building sites should be designed to avoid slopes, this is a recommendation, not a requirement.   … (italics in original)

The Commissioners lamented that “shall be designed … to avoid slopes in excess of 15%” seems pretty clear and that the proposed subdivision design could clearly not comply — all of the lots on slopes steeper than 15%, and much of the development was proposed on slopes as steep as 35%.

But, the Commissioners struggled with the County Code’s “Note” making it a “recommendation, not a requirement.”  If it’s not a requirement, what is the proper standard to apply?  Ultimately, the Commissioners took the law’s “recommendation” and determined that the subdivision was simply requesting too much on land too steep.

This is obviously the correct decision. Otherwise, the bizarre “recommendation, not a requirement” language would have effectively negated the ordinance entirely, and thus defeated its clear purpose to restrict development on steep slopes. But again, it points out the desperate need for a new development code in Kootenai County — a process just now getting underway.

 

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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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