Bonner County’s amnesty law was given a lethal injection Thursday with commissioners acting as executioner.
After one lawsuit and two public hearings, during which no one spoke in favor of the law, commissioners voted to dump the amnesty idea.
“Our hearts were in the right place when we passed it, but it was clear the public didn’t approve,” Commissioner Dale Van Stone said. “We had to go back and rethink it.”
The law was intended to clean up thousands of illegally subdivided parcels. Residents with the illegal lots would have received pardons and would not have had to meet county planning and zoning regulations.
Over the years, many property owners unknowingly were sold parcels that were too small, had no access or failed to meet other county standards.
Amnesty was a way to sweep 20 years of problems under the rug. But real estate agents, the chamber of commerce, developers and residents all fought the law. The county’s planning and zoning commission even voted to void the amnesty ordinance.
The law died a quick death at Thursday’s public hearing. About 60 people packed a courtroom and asked that the law be scrapped.
“It’s too bad it took so many people and so much time and effort to get this to happen, but I’m glad they (commissioners) did the right thing,” said Jim Watkins. He is the real estate agent who successfully sued the county for passing the law as an emergency in December, thus bypassing public comment and public hearings.
The commissioners’ plan 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 was tipped off about the upcoming ordinance. They rushed to file deeds, split their land and created at least 265 illegal lots.
Those who blatantly had abused the law sparked much of the public opposition. The county’s civil attorney, John Topp, was one who took advantage, along with developer Jeff Eich. Eich filed about 156 illegal lot splits just before the amnesty law was passed. Topp filed eight.
“Many subdivisions were done to purposely skirt the law,” real estate agent Jeff Bond told commissioners. “It was a sad day when the people (appointed) to protect us went out to break the law,” he added, referring to Topp.
Many residents argued the law was unfair to people who spent time and money going through the county’s planning and zoning process. Those granted amnesty would be able to sell lots and build subdivisions cheaper because they were free from county regulations.
Amnesty also would flood the market with thousands of lots which were previously undevelopable. “We need to keep a lid on what gets built and where, not take the lid off and let it boil over,” said Brian Bartlett, a land title examiner.
Commissioner Larry Allen didn’t agree with all the criticism of the law, but “I don’t think this is the way to go,” he said.
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.
Commissioner Bud Mueller hinted which way the board would vote. He asked residents to keep their statements as brief as possible. “I think we already know what you are going to say. We’ve gotten very little positive comment about this.”
With the amnesty law gone, Mueller said the county still has a mess to clean up. Landowners and developers can still walk into the courthouse and file illegal lot splits.
They may be denied a county permit to build on the property but that won’t prevent real estate agents from selling the illegally split land, he said.
Watkins suggested the county find ways to keep people from circumventing existing laws instead of granting pardons.
“That is going to take some time. It’s all part of our continued attempt to move into the 21st century,” Watkins said.
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