Land deeds poured into the Bonner County courthouse. A handful of residents were filing hundreds of them, splitting property at a furious pace.
Most of the splits were illegal. Parcels were too small, in the wrong zones and undevelopable, according to the county’s planning and zoning laws.
Those filing the deeds more than likely knew that. But they were betting on county commissioners to pass a law that would give amnesty to anyone who had a lot that was split illegally. Their bet paid off.
Commissioners met Dec. 11 to review the amnesty law and approved it. Those tipped about the proposed law instantly owned new subdivisions all over the county.
They flooded the market with at least 265 cheap new lots. Cheap because the parcels never had to go through county planners, environmental or other agency reviews. Neighboring property owners also were not notified of the splits.
“There were numerous illegal splits from those who thought they might get amnesty. That is not what this law was intended to do,” Commissioner Larry Allen said.
The county passed the law as an emergency. It didn’t want people rushing out to illegally divide land only to be pardoned by the new law. But the information leaked out.
Just before the commissioners’ 10 a.m. meeting to discuss the law, 60 deeds - one a minute - were filed in the courthouse.
Those sneaking in under the wire included the county’s civil attorney, John Topp, real estate agent George Gauzza and developer Jeff Eich. Eich does some business with Gauzza and is an associate of Commissioner Bud Mueller.
Gauzza filed 14 deeds that morning and Eich filed 39. During the month before the meeting, about 265 deeds were filed, more than half by Eich and one of his relatives.
When asked how he knew about the law in advance, Eich became defensive. “That’s none of your business. I have people that work for me who take care of that,” he said. Eich refused further comment. He said he had an attorney but declined to name him.
Gauzza and commissioner Mueller did not return calls to comment.
The legality of the amnesty law is being challenged in court. The state attorney general’s office has been asked to review whether Topp acted illegally or unethically when he divided land. An out-of-county prosecutor was named to review whether commissioners acted legally or if “insider information” was given to the select few who split land.
“There are a number of concerns about this,” said Jim Watkins, a real estate agent who’s pushed the issue into court. High on his list is the impact to the environment.
“We now have totally inappropriate, high-density subdivisions that will impact water quality, sewer districts and other county services,” he said. “Almost no part of the county is untouched by this.”
Eich wanted to put an asphalt plant near Round Lake. Public opposition made him pull the plan. Now he has divided some of his property there into 30 1-acre lots.
“Those who live near Round Lake on minimum 5- to 10-acre parcels are going to be shocked to have a subdivision next door of 30 homes on 1-acre lots,” Watkins said. A new 18-lot subdivision also was created on Fry Creek. The parcels there are less than an acre.
The law was intended to clean up thousands of problem parcels. Many pieces of land do not meet minimum lot sizes, are in the wrong zone or somehow fail to meet myriad planning and zoning standards.
People bought the land not knowing it violated county codes. Those buyers were stuck with property 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.”
County planner Marty Taylor said the amnesty law was not needed. There is a process to bring illegal lots into compliance.
“There are thousands of them and we are fixing them one at a time, legally,” Taylor said. “This board said they wanted to fix them all in a clean sweep. Instead of saying you have an illegal lot, go fix it, they set the law 20 years forward and waived all this stuff.”
What the county has done is penalize residents who spent time and money to go through the planning and zoning process, Watkins said. “The result for existing property owners is catastrophic,” he said.
Eich is selling 15 one-acre lots he illegally split near Gun Club Road. Watkins has a client in the same area trying to get approval from the county for 5-acre parcels.
“This is favoritism on a grand scale. The few who could have used this (law) to solve their problems weren’t told about it,” Watkins said. Most who split land before the law was passed did it to make a quick buck, he added.
Commissioner Allen said he knew of residents who could have used the law to get out of a jam. It would have been unethical to call them, he said. “I didn’t say a word to anyone.”
The idea of an amnesty law surfaced in October at a commissioners meeting. Only a couple of residents were present. The plan mainly was talked about among county officials.
Topp claims he had permission from commissioners to take advantage of the amnesty law. Allen said he had a “good idea” Topp was going to split parcels but did not give him permission.
“John (Topp) doesn’t feel he did anything wrong. I tend to agree, but it just doesn’t really smell good,” Allen said. “In retrospect, I would have indicated I would have had a problem with it. It didn’t hit me at the time that dividing property just prior to the ordinance being passed wouldn’t be fair to the taxpayers.”
Lot splits made on the day the law was passed are in question, Allen added. The law reads those splits filed “prior” to the effective date (Dec. 11) get amnesty. “My layman’s view is the morning of the 11th is not prior to the effective date,” Allen said, so any lots illegally split that morning would be denied building location permits.
The public still has a chance to comment on the amnesty ordinance. Because it was passed as an emergency, the law is temporary and expires in 120 days. To make it permanent, public hearings have to be held before the planning and zoning commission and county commissioners. The first hearing is Feb. 5.
“There was never any intent to slip something by on the public,” Taylor said. “If we didn’t do this as an emergency, we would have had thousands of illegal splits filed, not just 265.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: UNDER THE WIRE Only a handful of people found out and took advantage of a county law to give amnesty to illegal lot splits. Before the law was passed, residents illegally split about 265 parcels to avoid going through the planning and zoning process. Neither neighbors nor environmental officials were notified of the splits. The following is a list of those who cashed in on the law before it was passed: Jeff Eich, logger and land developer. Eich (and a relative) filed 156 deeds, which created subdivisions all over the county. Some lots were split smaller than an acre. He’s an associate of County Commissioner Bud Mueller and works with real estate agent George Gauzza. George Gauzza, owner of Sandpoint Realty. He filed 14 deeds, created a subdivision on Priest Lake, north of Reeder Bay. He is now selling some of Eich’s illegally split lots. John Topp, county civil attorney. He filed eight deeds and created lots for family use. Topp reviewed and helped write the amnesty law before it was adopted by commissioners. A resident has filed a complaint against Topp with the Idaho attorney general’s office for unethical behavior. Vernon J. and Marti. E. Mortensen, local residents. They filed 32 deeds. Dave and Nancy Lewis, local residents. He filed 36 deeds. They also contributed $300 to Commissioner Bud Mueller’s election campaign. K. Ewing Buck, represented Doris Buck estate. Filed 21 deeds. Randy L. Provolt, local resident and surveyor. He filed 2 deeds. Provolt did surveys for others who were splitting land. Eich, Gauzza and Topp all filed deeds an hour before the commissioners met to adopt the amnesty law.