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New Access Rules Could Help Landowners Incorrectly Divided Kootenai County Subdivisions Keep Buyers From Building Homes On Their Land

When Patrick Hall bought bare riverfront ground last year he never dreamed that’s all it’d ever be.

The Coeur d’Alene real estate agent planned to split the 10 acres four ways and sell the lots for homes. With 500-plus feet of land along the Spokane River near Post Falls, he figured to make a tidy profit on his $165,000 investment.

Now, he’s not so sure.

Last fall development cops - planning commissioners and county commissioners - balked. They claimed Hall had only a private road connecting his land to a county network of roads - not a public road as county rules required.

And while county officials sometimes had let others count waterways as the required “public access,” they said no to Hall. Previous interpretations were incorrect, officials said.

“I bought a pig in a poke - I’ve got land I can’t do anything with,” Hall said. “And I’m still paying it off.”

Hall’s situation includes unusual circumstances, and county workers maintain they did nothing wrong.

But they do say his case - and dozens like it - is one reason they are proposing an overhaul of some building rules that deal with roads and waterways.

If approved, proposed changes would give landowners like Hall another shot at building. Planning commissioners will consider the changes next month.

“We’ve seen enough people come in here and be disappointed that we’re trying to find ways for them to build their homes,” said Cheri Howell, county planning director.

Engineer Jim Meckel knows of about 20 landowners in the last 10 years who bought incorrectly subdivided property that, for purely technical reasons, couldn’t be developed at all. Others bought land within a subdivision that has absolutely no road access.

The new county rules would make most of those lots - provided they were created before May 1994 - legal building lots.

John Kenny, with Gem State Engineering, said some landowners and developers who spent thousands of dollars building roads and properly subdividing land could be miffed that those who didn’t would now get equal treatment.

But more importantly, he said, people who were misled or unlucky and bought worthless land may now get to use it.

“The county’s trying to clean up years of problems,” Kenny said. “That’s a good thing.”

Hall’s problem started before he finished buying his land.

A private road split his property, providing access to the nearest highway. While county rules require “public access” - usually a road owned and maintained by the county rather than homeowners - Hall said he was assured by planners that the alternative of river travel would meet the technical requirement.

Howell denied that charge: “As a department, we don’t guarantee the outcome. It’s not our decision.”

Regardless, when Hall went before commissioners, neighbors came out opposing his plans. Commissioners voted against him, claiming the law left them no choice.

“These access issues are rare, but they do happen, and we have to look at each on its own merits,” said planning commissioner Jon Mueller. “That doesn’t necessarily constitute a precedent that we’ve been looking the other way.”

Commissioners said Hall’s land was on a cliff, so river access was questionable. And since his land was west of the Post Falls dam, officials claimed the river that fronted the property wasn’t navigable anyway.

Mueller also said Hall couldn’t prove that neighbors - some who opposed his building plants - would let him use their private road.

Hall insists he had permission.

“I’ve been fighting and I’m still fighting,” Hall said. “But at least it might help other people out there.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: See related story under the headline: Woman told home is illegal

See related story under the headline: Woman told home is illegal