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Building boom sparks push to save open space

Imagine houses covering Rathdrum Prairie, ritzy residential developments taking over the treed hillsides and a backdrop for Lake Coeur d’Alene of solid rooftops.

Not the pristine image that draws thousands of people to Kootenai County each year. And that’s why a movement to protect and preserve the area’s natural attractions has ignited.

Sparked by potential development on Canfield Mountain – the treed landmark that rises from the prairie’s eastern edge visible from Spokane Valley – the debate over how to conserve the area’s views is going strong. And many people say this is the perfect time.

Kootenai County continues a record-pace growth spurt that began more than a decade ago, largely attributed to the area’s natural beauty and quality of life. In the 1990s, the county’s population grew by nearly 39,000 people, according to the 2000 U.S. census.

Both Coeur d’Alene and Kootenai County are working on separate ways to preserve open space. The big question for both is how to pay for land purchases. A few proposals are circulating through the county, while communities such as Boise, Missoula and Spokane already are busy purchasing land for preservation.

Another challenge is creating a specific vision – what areas do residents value and what are the most important places to preserve?

“It’s a wise thing to do, to have a plan and take a look at the bigger picture,” Coeur d’Alene Parks Director Doug Eastwood said.

Fighting for open space

Public interest in preservation was generated recently by plans to put a housing development on Canfield’s Copper Ridge at the end of Shadduck Lane in Coeur d’Alene.

Residents were already upset with how Canfield Mountain’s appearance has changed in the last five years after property owner Marvin Erickson carved a notorious Z-shaped road into the mountainside and built a house. This summer Erickson logged his property next to Copper Ridge, angering even more people. He also has plans for a subdivision next to his home.

So when Quest Development proposed a dense subdivision, the fight was on.

Neighbors organized in opposition and eventually formed the Canfield Mountain Alliance, whose members stood outside local grocery stores gathering signatures opposing the development in the popular hiking and mountain biking area. More than 1,000 sign-ees said they were willing to pay higher taxes – an average of $72 per year – to buy open space. In response, the Coeur d’Alene City Council directed staff to investigate ways to fund an open space acquisition program.

Both the city and Canfield Mountain Alliance members are somewhat mum about the initial talks. But something is expected to happen fast, especially since the city is considering asking voters to approve two general obligation bonds as early as February on a new downtown library and public safety. Alliance members wonder if a third bond, one for open space acquisition, could be added.

City Finance Director Troy Tymesen is hesitant to say, adding that the council isn’t expected to make decisions on the library and public safety proposals until Tuesday’s meeting.

He’s more comfortable going over possible ways to fund open space acquisition.

Besides a bond, Coeur d’Alene could follow Boise’s lead and do a serial levy, which allows a city to divert a portion of property taxes for a limited amount of time. In Boise that meant the average homeowner paid about $50 extra in property tax over two years.

Another option is a modified local improvement district that would spread the cost among people who live in the area that benefits most from an open space purchase. Tymesen said it’s possible to have a graduated cost system where people would pay less the farther away they live.

Creating a nonprofit foundation to raise money is a possibility, as is nixing the idea of open space preservation altogether.

Canfield Mountain Alliance wants the city to move fast because the Copper Ridge property is for sale. Quest Development has an exclusive option to buy the 49 acres, but would only do so if it can get a subdivision approved. So far the first two plans have been rejected. The company presented the city with a third proposal Friday for 38 homes and 33 acres of open space on the steeper hillside. Canfield Mountain Alliance members think even if the city approves this subdivision proposal, it could still buy the 33 acres of open space.

A 43-acre chunk abutting the Copper Ridge property is also for sale. If the city could buy those two pieces, there would be direct access to public forest lands and a much larger trail system.

Prairie preservation

Yet the money from an open space preservation program wouldn’t necessarily go toward just Canfield Mountain. Eastwood said other areas also are valuable to the public – hillsides around Lake Coeur d’Alene, the Rathdrum Prairie and abandoned railroad lines that are becoming popular bike trails.

Kootenai County is working on a separate proposal to buy portions of the Rathdrum Prairie, perhaps using sales tax dollars. As with Canfield Mountain, timing is important because about 1,000 acres of prairie a year are lost to large-acre residential lots. It’s estimated only about 10,000 acres remain.

Commission Chairman Dick Panabaker wants to buy up to 10,000 acres and has support of the county’s open space steering committee. The prairie is seen as crucial because it covers and protects the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, which is the sole source of drinking water for 400,000 people. Another issue is preserving farmland that helps separate the different Kootenai County towns so there’s not a sprawl of homes and businesses as there is in Spokane Valley.

Panabaker wants the Idaho Legislature to extend the local option sales tax to fund projects other than jails. Kootenai County currently charges an extra half-cent in sales tax. Half the money goes to fund the jail expansion and the rest is for property tax relief.

The commission is having an advisory vote on Nov. 2 asking county residents if they would support changing the law. If voters agree, then the county and local lawmakers will lobby the Legislature. If the tax-adverse Legislature agrees, then Kootenai County residents would have to vote on how to spend the money.

Panabaker’s open space idea isn’t the only one vying for sales tax dollars. A local car dealer wants the money to go toward a $32 million civic center on the prairie. The advisory vote will include a question asking people whether they would prefer to have the sales tax money fund open space or a civic center.

County Planning Director Rand Wichman said that the city’s new discussions will help with the county’s effort.

“Getting people to think about open space and acquiring open space as a means to protect it is a just effort,” Wichman said. “If the sales tax doesn’t prove to be an option, we will look at this idea of whether we could do a bond.”

Models elsewhere

Votes for open space preservation funding are common across the country. Since 1999, there have been 828 measures – of which 644 were voter-approved – for a total of $26.3 billion in open space preservation cash, according to Trust for Public Lands, a national nonprofit group.

At first blush, it’s expected that developers, real estate agents, builders and private property rights advocates will oppose any move for tax dollars to go toward open space preservation. Even some opposition from the chambers of commerce is anticipated.

Coeur d’Alene saw this last year when the council approved hillside building restrictions on the city’s steep slopes to prevent erosion, landslides and eyesores. Erickson, the Canfield Mountain property owner, is a strong advocate for private property rights and calls people who have opposed how he manages his land “hate groups.”

Coeur d’Alene is looking to Boise’s and Missoula’s successful open space preservation programs as examples. Both cities had opposition from these various business interests, but eventually most everyone saw the value in protecting open space, officials from those cities said.

They advise Kootenai County and Coeur d’Alene to form broad-based groups and insist on public involvement, especially to determine what areas need protection and how the money is spent.

“By sustaining a high quality of life, it increased the desirability to live here and the price of homes and the economy continues to grow,” said Paul Woods, Boise’s foothills acquisition coordinator. “A lot of people got behind that message. Not because they like to ride their mountain bike up there but because they like the way Boise is. They like looking up there and seeing the hills.”

In the end, this is the revelation that sold both Missoula and Boise residents on the ballot measures.

Boise voters passed a $10 million serial levy in 1998 to protect the foothills that provide a backdrop to the capital city. Talks about preservation began in the early 1970s.

“It was really kind of a grassroots effort that showed folks, ‘hey, this is possible to save these places we identify with,’ ” Woods said.

Missoula’s open space money, generated from a $5 million bond, has purchased more than 3,200 acres of hillsides and riparian areas. Other local, state and federal money, as well as gifts, has allowed the city to protect another $3.5 million-worth of open space.

“It leaves the urban areas in the middle as a pretty livable place,” said Philip Maechling, Missoula’s historic preservation officer and former long-range planning manager. “Missoula is surrounded by hills and is fed by a number of rivers. The hills are the framework and the rivers are the blood and lungs.”

Spokane County has a popular conservation futures program that has used property taxes to generate more than $6 million to buy property including areas along the Spokane River and the Cedar Grove Conservation Area adjacent to Liberty Lake County Park.

Local land trusts, conservation and environmental groups are eager to work with the local governments on hashing out what lands need preservation. State and federal agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game also may have ideas.

“It’s a worthy goal,” said Asha Rehnberg of the Inland Northwest Land Trust who suggests that the city and county work together. “So all the urban growth (Kootenai County) is generating doesn’t destroy the quality of life that people are moving there for.”

Carol Sebastian of Kootenai Environmental Alliance agrees it’s a quality of life issue.

“Kootenai County is at the perfect time,” Sebastian said. “They are at the point where they can go either way. They should be talking about it and laying out plans. And they should be involving the community.”



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