New rules call for more open space - Proposed Kootenai subdivision laws would reward developers who `cluster' homes

Erica Curless
Staff writer - The Spokesman Review Online

Coeur d'Alene _ Imagine housing developments with more open space and hillsides without the scar of roads or homes.

Kootenai County is throwing out its 25-year-old laws for subdividing county land and starting over. The emphasis is on encouraging developers to leave more land green. And the county wants developers to provide more specific information on how construction would affect neighboring landowners and the environment.

"As expected, we heard everything from `It isn't strict enough' to `If adopted it will shut down development in the county,"' County Planner Shireene Hale wrote in a memo to the county planning commission that will have a public hearing tonight on the proposed subdivision laws.

One of the biggest changes is giving developers incentives to save a portion of their land for open space that is left natural, made into a park or farmed.

For example, a developer of a 100-acre rural subdivision now can build no more than 20 homes. Under the proposed laws, the developer could build an additional four homes on the land if the homes are clustered, leaving at least 50 percent of the land for open space. The number of homes depends on how much land is left open.

Planning Director Rand Wichman said this is an incentive because developers spend less money on extending water and sewer pipes and building roads. And they can sell more homes.

Wichman said it's unknown how this could change the county's landscape because the conservation design proposal is optional.

"It has the potential to protect some additional open space and help keep development out of the least appropriate areas like steep hillsides and areas with stability or groundwater problems," Wichman said.

The Kootenai Environmental Alliance said if the goal is to keep the county from becoming a "seamless web of subdivisions" the county must require all developers to cluster homes in rural areas.

The environmental group also wants the county to direct development to adjoin existing communities where services and utilities already exist and to designate growth areas.

Since 1990, about 10,000 acres of the Rathdrum Prairie have been annexed into the cities or subdivided. Only about 10,000 acres of open land remain.

That shows the county's skyrocketing growth. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Kootenai County's population has jumped 55.7 percent since 1990, totaling 108,685 residents.

Wichman said this has resulted in the easiest-to-develop land getting covered in homes, and people are now turning to hillsides and places with high groundwater levels.

Many local engineers agree that the county's proposal to prohibit housing developments on hillsides steeper than 35 percent is too restrictive and would likely eliminate large amounts of private property from being developed.

Harrison residents Jerome Hustead and Paul Finney wrote to the county in May stating that Kootenai County is ignoring private property rights.

They, like several other county residents and groups including the Coeur d'Alene Association of Realtors, object to requiring all roads within a subdivision to meet local highway district standards, even if they are within a gated community and privately maintained.

Another concern is a proposal to prohibit people from subdividing land that cannot be annexed into a local fire district.

Before subdivisions are approved, the county wants to have additional reports such as maps of wetland areas, traffic studies and groundwater quality information.

Developers have told the county those extra reports would add significant cost to applying for subdivisions, especially when approval isn't guaranteed.

In May, local real estate agent John Beutler took the county's rejection of his 80-home development as a sign that it wants to make it more difficult and expensive to get subdivisions approved.

He said it appears the county wants developers to spend more time and money to lay out plans for proposed developments, even before the county gives preliminary approval.

Beutler said that the purpose of the preliminary process is to identify all of a project's concerns and hurdles. Then, after the county gives approval, the developer can do the studies to find out exactly how to solve those concerns.

Beutler paid a hydrologist to pinpoint exactly what part of the 60 acres at the corner of Lancaster and Rimrock roads were considered wetlands, and he did a traffic study.

But the commission still felt uncomfortable and rejected the proposal.

Instead of asking everyone who wants to subdivide land to get a geotechnical study, Strata Engineering proposes that the county do a geological hazard map of the entire county that will show the critical areas -- such as wetlands or hillsides -- where additional engineering and studies are needed.

Many people who have commented on the draft are concerned about vague language and confusing requirements.

For example, Coeur d'Alene resident Carl Martin questions what it means to "mitigate" negative environmental, social and economic impacts.

He said the laws should prevent negative impacts, not mitigate them, which could mean to excuse or make less severe.

Some groups, such as the North Idaho Building Contractors Association and Alliance for Responsible Growth, want the county to give people more time to respond to the lengthy proposal.

The Alliance for Responsible Growth, which is a new group with members from other county watchdog organizations, suggest that the county form a roundtable group to discuss each line of the proposal to clarify the wording and ensure that everyone gets a chance to hash out ideas.

Wichman said the roundtable idea is unlikely, but that the commission is expected to continue the public hearing until this fall and ask for more testimony.

The county is also in the midst of revamping its zoning laws, which are rules on how land is classified, and will eventually rewrite the comprehensive plan.

Some people have told the county that it's backward to craft the subdivision and zoning laws before doing the more philosophical comprehensive plan, which is the foundation for all land-use decisions.

The county planned to have a public hearing on the proposed zoning laws tonight but postponed the hearing until September to allow the planning commission to focus on the subdivision laws.

The 6 p.m. hearing is at the county administration building, 451 Government Way.

For more information, call 446-1070.


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