A new law that gave amnesty to hundreds of Bonner County residents with illegal and unbuildable lots is headed for court.
Jim Watkins, a real estate agent, has asked a judge to review the law. It was passed quietly and quickly by Bonner County commissioners at an illegal meeting, Watkins said in court documents.
The law was intended to clean up hundreds of problem parcels in the county. The pieces of land, some sold by unscrupulous real estate agents to out-of-towners, do not meet minimum lot sizes, are in the wrong zone or somehow fail to meet a myriad of planning and zoning standards.
The county was tired of processing the time-consuming requests to make the lots legal. Some could never be made legal.
“There were a lot of people left holding the bag and stuck with a piece of ground they couldn’t do anything with,” Commissioner Dale Van Stone said. “We were trying to do those people some good, but we had others who deliberately wanted to circumvent the process.”
Residents have complained about the law, saying it rewards those who thumbed their noses at county regulations.
Others have leveled charges of unethical insider information being provided by the county. Before the law was passed, more than a dozen people illegally split lots and recorded the deeds. Those lots became legal when the new law went into effect Dec. 11.
One of those who split land was county civil attorney John Topp. He divided four parcels into eight pieces of land and had them deeded to his family.
Topp’s quit claim deeds were dated Dec. 8 and filed in the courthouse Dec. 11 at 9:39 a.m. That was just before commissioners passed the law. At least one real estate agent did the same thing, dividing the property to develop and sell it later on.
Van Stone said Topp obviously knew commissioners were pondering passing the law, because Topp wrote the ordinance.
“I wish he (Topp) wouldn’t have done it,” Van Stone said, adding that it looks improper even if it was not illegal. “Maybe it needs to be reviewed by someone other than this board of commissioners.”
Topp denied any wrongdoing or unethical deals. Many people knew the county was going to pass the law. It was talked about at an October commissioner meeting, he said.
“I didn’t do anything anybody else couldn’t have done if they stayed in touch with the county,” Topp said. He claimed a local radio station reported the law was being considered days before it was passed.
Commissioners also had the choice of not adopting the law and making illegal splits continue to go through the zoning process.
“I didn’t know if they would pass the ordinance,” Topp said, adding he could have legally split the land several other ways.
Watkins disputes the assertion that residents were aware the law was about to be passed. The item was listed on the commissioners’ agenda as “planning department compliance emergency ordinance.”
The county actually wanted to make the decision quickly, Van Stone said. It did not want people rushing out to split land illegally only to be pardoned by the new law.
“The feeling was if we laid it out there, people would rush to beat it. Some definitely jumped the gun before we passed it anyway,” Van Stone said.
The law arbitrarily eliminates subdivision and zoning standards for hundreds of parcels, Watkins said. In effect, it grants a windfall to property owners who have violated county regulations. He wants a judge to declare the amnesty law illegal.