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Posts Tagged ‘Piazza’

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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 Our long county nightmare is (almost) over. Last night, the County Commissioners finished their yearlong line-by-line editing of a new Kootenai County Comprehensive Plan. The long, slow failure of a process came to an anti-climactic end at precisely 7:10 pm when Chairman Currie ordered that the edited document be re-printed for a final public hearing.

 Now, the bazillion of mostly-pointless edits to the plan will be consolidated by staff into a revised document to be released in a month or so. According to the Commissioners, another public hearing will be scheduled some 30 days after that. The Commissioners will then deliberate yet again.

 In theory, the re-hearing will give a final opportunity for the Commissioners to remedy a fundamental flaw in their version of the plan. Recall that the Commissioners removed guidance for development densities at a deliberation meeting in May, essentially stripping the plan of much of its meaning. Revision of the horribly out-of-date zoning code and development regulations will be made all that much more difficult by this failure. We still believe that this is a critical mistake, and we will certainly urge the Commissioners to revisit the density decision before finalizing the document.

 So, we’re keeping our September calendars clear. There’s only one more comp plan hearing to go.

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The Kootenai County Commissioners decided this morning that they would pull back on their draft “emergency” legislation to extend time to developers to complete projects. Instead, the Commissioners referred the legislation back to the Planning Commission for their evaluation without the “emergency” status.  The poorly-drafted legislation  would have granted developers up to two years of additional time to complete projects upon an application to the County showing economic hardship.

 Commissioner Currie was concerned that any such legislation would need “sidebars” so that the legislation would not be a “complete free ride” to developers. He said he would require that economic hardship be “proven” and “definite” and that extensions of time would only be afforded to “substantially completed” projects. He also noted that there should be a formal process available for hearings and appeals, if necessary, and that a simple request for an extension was not enough justification.

 Commissioner Tondee suggested that after his “first pass” through the legislation, he thought it was an idea “good for the local economy.” However, he said he couldn’t come to terms with the “emergency” designation, and was concerned that the circumstances of this legislation did not constitute a proper emergency as anticipated by the State’s authority. He said he’d rather send the proposal through the Planning Commission to carefully consider “sidebars” as suggested by Commissioner Currie, and to avoid the problems with designating it as an emergency ordinance.

 Commissioner Piazza generally concurred, noting that “something needs to be done” but also that the economic downturn is continuing, and a more extensive solution might be necessary beyond what emergency legislation can accomplish.

 The next steps will be up to the Planning Commission. Stay tuned.

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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.

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We were alerted Tuesday to a stunning new draft “Emergency Ordinance” scheduled to be introduced by the Kootenai County Commissioners which would allow developers to escape their obligations under existing land use approvals and financial guarantees for up to two years by simply sending a written request.

Emergency legislation? Really?

 The draft bill (pdf)  says that the Board of County Commissioners may consider such a request at any regular meeting. But the legislation does not provide any standard for a decision by the Board, nor does the legislation require any findings of fact or law prior to granting an approval. Indeed, other than a “written request” that contains “reasons why good cause exists (minimally including an economic hardship),” these requests may evidently be granted by the Board on a whim.

 On the substance, the legislation is probably illegal, but it is certainly bad policy. If a prior land use decision has been through the hearing examiner process, the Board approval process, and has been issued a formal binding decision, the Board cannot revisit the prior final decision without similarly formal processes and hearings.  Some of these deadlines and financial guarantees were negotiated in detail and agreed-to by more than just the landowner or developer. It would be patently unfair to unilaterally relieve one party of its obligations. Besides, there is an extraordinary moral hazard here – these landowners and developers chose to take on real estate development risks knowingly and willingly. These are not naïve actors in our local economy.  They are obligated under formal binding public orders, after significant public process. Relieving them of these obligations will encourage similar risk-taking in similar economic environments leading to more bailouts. 

 Moreover, the timing and “emergency” nature of this legislation is highly suspect.  This economic emergency has been ongoing for nearly two years. Why would the nature of the economy get so severe as to require fast-tracked “emergency” legislation to be unveiled exactly one week before a hotly contested primary election? We wonder.

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One of the more frustrating things about the comp plan battle has been fending off the misinformation by the realtors, builders, and business interests. Parroting talking points we’ve been hearing all along, a commenter to our recent posting about the Commissioners’ misguided decision to remove density designations from the current draft plan writes:

This is actually a wonderful and BRAVE decision for these two to make. Terry…you and I don’t always agree but the state law is VERY specific and NO other county has density restrictions in their comp plan in Idaho. It is illegal by statute.

Which is (except for the “don’t always agree” part) unfortunately false. 

Quite a few Idaho counties have ranges of land use densities specified in their comp plans.  Among those with densities specified in their plans would be similarly situated Teton County, and nearby Boundary and Bonner Counties. (Warning: big pdfs. Links to all county comp plans in Idaho can be found here if anyone wants to wade through them…)

Moreover, it is not illegal. On the contrary, state law is specifically designed to allow Counties to regulate land use themselves as they see fit.  We agree (another pdf) with the County’s own legal analysis that specificity in the comp plan, including the densities, would clearly be upheld in a legal challenge.

Keep in mind, though, that it’s not over ’til it’s over. In this instance, the fat lady won’t be singing for months still.  The Commissioners have a number of deliberation meetings scheduled for June to go through the detailed mapping of the (now-meaningless) comp plan designations.  Then, the commissioners have promised a new hearing on all their amendments prior to adoption.  Plus, there may even be new Commissioners by the time the whole thing is completed. 

Truth may still prevail.

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 In their long slow failure of deliberating the draft Comprehensive Plan, the County Commissioners today voted 2-1 in favor of throwing out thousands of hours of hard work by hundreds of citizens in developing a new comp plan that actually meant something. 

File Photo

Over Commissioner Tondee’s strong objection, Commissioners Currie and Piazza voted to remove specific development density ranges for all land use designations in the Plan. In essence, the two Commissioners declined to describe in real and useful terms what levels of development would be appropriate in any area of the county.

 The density decision, of course, is the most important one to make in a comprehensive plan. Today’s deliberation was the last one scheduled before the primary election.

 Recall that KEA and others had advocated strongly for a less-dense rural area. Municipalities on the prairie had advocated for less density as well, so that their annexation and growth could proceed in an orderly non-leapfrog way.

 Now, without a numeric range of allowed densities, landowners, citizen groups, and future developers will need to depend on a narrative description to define appropriate development densities. Moreover, future Commissioners will face unending re-zoning battles and litigation as developers and citizens fight over what each land use category means. Sound familiar?  This is precisely the critical flaw in the current out-of-date comprehensive plan.

 Make no mistake, this is a failure of epic proportions.  Of all the ways to duck the political hot-potato density issue, the two commissioners picked the worst possible solution — choosing to enforce the status quo. And after all this time.

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