May 18, 2004 in Idaho

French defends dredging

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane City Councilman and architect Al French defended his role in a controversial river dredging operation that took place near Post Falls over Mother’s Day weekend.

During Monday’s Spokane City Council session, French lashed out at The Spokesman-Review’s recent account of the project, calling the story “one-sided and inflammatory.”

State, county and federal officials told the newspaper French did not have the permits needed to proceed with digging a 150-foot boat canal for his client, Spokane businessman Tom Hamilton. Officials called the action one of the most flagrant abuses of a public waterway in the region in recent memory.

A Sunday article describing the project “impugns my reputation, not only as an architect, but as a member of this City Council,” French said, before reading much of a 3½-page press release from the council dais during the televised meeting.

French said he issued the press release Saturday. “They chose not to use any part of it in their article,” he said.

After reading much of the press release, the first-term councilman added, “The article in Sunday’s paper was obviously designed to embarrass me and bring political pressure to what should be a rational process.”

Spokesman-Review Managing Editor Gary Graham said French was given ample opportunity to explain Hamilton’s project last week. French did not return at least four phone calls from a Spokesman-Review reporter last week. Calls were made Monday, Thursday and Friday. French was finally reached late Friday afternoon. He refused to comment, saying he would be issuing a press release by the end of the day. An E-mail message containing the press release was sent to a reporter Saturday afternoon; French had been told that reporter would not be in the newsroom over the weekend.

“We made several attempts to contact him and give him an opportunity to respond to our questions about the story last week,” Graham said. “We stand by our story.”

French’s statement says he and his client spent two years trying to obtain the necessary approvals on the project. Rising river levels and agency foot-dragging threatened to make the project impossible, he added.

“Without their verbal approvals, written approvals and documented waivers, he would have never proceeded with this project,” French wrote. “All agencies had consented to the application and the project.”

Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Idaho Department of Lands and the Kootenai County Planning Office said French did not have the approvals needed to dig the canal. Extensive permits are required for any project that affects river bottom or shoreline.

Two days before the dredging began, French had been warned not to proceed, said Rand Wichman, Kootenai County Planning Director.

“He was made aware he wasn’t going to be issued a permit,” Wichman said last week.

French also paid a visit shortly before the digging began to the Idaho Department of Lands Office, said area director Mike Denney.

“It was very clear that he didn’t have permission,” Denney said last week.

The dredging work muddied the Spokane River and outraged some neighbors, including Sharla Benderle, who owns property on Harbor Island. “I’m just so disgusted. I can’t believe he would do such a thing,” Benderle said Monday.

Officials are now discussing possible penalties, including requiring French to restore the site to its undisturbed status. The Kootenai County Prosecutor’s office is also reviewing the case for possible penalties.


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