February 7, 1998 in Nation/World

Landowner Amnesty Repealed Bonner County Already Considering New Law To Avoid Dealing With Illegal Lots

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Bonner County’s new amnesty law is null and void - for now.

The law was wiped off the books by court order Friday, with the blessing of county commissioners.

“It was repealed - there is no amnesty,” said county Prosecutor Phil Robinson. “Even if the idea of amnesty had any kind of validity or support it became a matter that was abused.”

The law gave amnesty to landowners with illegal or undevelopable lots. The process to enact a new amnesty law already is under way. County commissioners will have the final say on whether to enact it after a public hearing Feb. 26.

Over the years, many property owners were unknowingly sold parcels that didn’t meet planning and zoning codes. Thousands of illegally subdivided lots exist in the county.

Illegal lots are too small, have improper access or are zoned inappropriately. Because of that, owners often aren’t able to use the property.

Commissioners wanted to fix the problem in one sweeping move. They passed the amnesty law as an emergency in December, bypassing public comment and public hearings.

The idea was to adopt the law swiftly, giving people no time to illegally divide more land before the law was enacted. But a handful of residents were tipped about the upcoming ordinance. They rushed to file deeds, split their land and created at least 265 new illegal lots.

The county’s civil attorney, John Topp, was one who took advantage. Developer Jeff Eich was another, filing about 156 illegal lot splits. Some of Eich’s lots already were being sold by real estate agent George Gauzza, who also split land.

Now that the law is voided, Robinson said those who made the last minute lot splits will not be issued county building location permits. They will have to formally split the land through the planning and zoning process.

“By declaring it null and void, no one can take advantage of the law now,” he said. “Now we just have hundreds more non-complying lots.”

The county was pushed into repealing the law by real estate agent Jim Watkins. He challenged the amnesty ordinance in court. Instead of fighting Watkins, the county agreed to pay him $500 for attorney fees and request the judge overturn the amnesty law.

The battle over amnesty isn’t dead, however.

The county already has started the public hearing process to review the law. About 60 residents packed a courtroom Thursday to tell the planning and zoning commission any amnesty law is a bad idea.

Pardoning some property owners is a slap in the face to those who abided by the laws and followed planning and zoning rules, residents said.

“What we need is tighter, better ordinances, not amnesty,” said real estate agent Jeff Bond. The Chamber of Commerce and Bonner County Association of Realtors also opposed any kind of amnesty law.

The county has a process in place to fix illegal parcels on a case-by-case basis. Neighboring property owners, environmental and water quality agencies are notified through that process. Those groups would be excluded from giving comments with an amnesty law.

Contractor Bryan Wood said the law destroys property values and is a step backwards, as was abolishing the building department. Brian Bartlett, a land title examiner, said the county needs to control growth, not “take the lid off it.”

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

NO AMNESTY

A look back at the amnesty law controversy:

December: Bonner County Commissioners adopt a law that would have made legal thousands of unlawful lot splits. Before the law was adopted in December, several people split lots illegally, hoping to gain amnesty.

What happened next: Real estate agent Jim Watkins, challenged the law, and it was thrown out in court.

Coming up: The county commissioners will decide in a public hearing Feb. 26 whether to re-enact the law.

This sidebar appeared with the story: NO AMNESTY A look back at the amnesty law controversy: December: Bonner County Commissioners adopt a law that would have made legal thousands of unlawful lot splits. Before the law was adopted in December, several people split lots illegally, hoping to gain amnesty. What happened next: Real estate agent Jim Watkins, challenged the law, and it was thrown out in court. Coming up: The county commissioners will decide in a public hearing Feb. 26 whether to re-enact the law.


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