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Kootenai prepares for growth

How Kootenai County looks in 20 years largely depends on what residents tell planning officials in the months ahead.

The county has begun to update its comprehensive plan – the foundation of all land-use decisions. With the population expected to swell to 250,000 – a 128,000 increase from today – the plan is a blueprint for where those people should live and what areas should remain rural.

“This is the community’s opportunity to tell us how we should grow, where we should grow,” Planning Director Rand Wichman said.

It’s not clear yet how the public can participate. The county is in the process of hiring a private consultant to figure out how to work with residents, perhaps using surveys or workshops.

Wichman said he expects several main debates during development of the plan.

With the recent trend of luxurious private golf communities proposed for the east side of Lake Coeur d’Alene, Wichman said, residents must decide if these developments are the future of Kootenai County. Or if these resorts are the appropriate use for timber land and former cattle ranches that are 30 miles from the county’s population center.

The plan also will consider whether residents desire to protect hillsides and wetlands from housing projects.

“Do we do a better job of protecting our hillsides or is that where we focus growth?” Wichman asked. “There are good views from those hillsides.”

Affordable housing may become another debate, yet Wichman admits that’s a tough issue for the county to address because most affordable housing is found in incorporated areas, which allow for higher density and offer more services. One possibility is limiting the price of 10 percent to 15 percent of lots in a housing development approved in the county.

Some groups, such as the North Idaho Building Contractors Association and the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, are pushing to have a representative involved in the rewrite process.

Carol Sebastian of KEA said residents need to have discussions with planners, not just three minutes to make a statement at a workshop.

“We want to be directly involved,” she said.

NIBCA president Ron Mahuron agreed.

Neighborhood groups also want to tell the county how they want their areas to grow. The most organized group is the Mica Kidd Island Property Owners Association, which wants to write its own development plan and give it to the county for consideration.

Public involvement became a contentious issue in 2004 when the county commission prepared to approve new rules for how to divide and classify land in the county.

A rare combination of environmentalists, builders and land developers argued there had not been enough public involvement and persuaded the commission to hold off making a decision until a citizens advisory group could come to a consensus on changes to the zoning and subdivision rules.

In a surprise to nearly everyone, the group did reach an agreement and the commission approved the new laws.

Sebastian said the county shouldn’t repeat its previous mistake.

The county is supposed to update its comprehensive plan every five years, but the last revision was in 1994, just as the population boom was coming on. Wichman said the commissioners at that time put planning on the back burner and even debated eliminating the planning department. The current commission has wanted to start on the revision for several years but with the number of land use applications and building permits going through the planning department there hasn’t been adequate staff.

This month the county hired former Planning Director Cheri Howell, who has been working as a private consultant, to guide the development of the comprehensive plan. Howell is gathering facts such as population estimates, the number of building permits issued in various areas of the county, and working with fire and highway districts to get an idea of their needs.

Commissioner Katie Brodie said she has no preconceptions about how the county should look or what residents might bring up.

“The nicest part about a comprehensive plan is it’s a living document and it changes,” Brodie said. “Come and give your input. Tell us what you want to see.”

County Planner Mark Mussman said current rules for classifying land contradict the comprehensive plan. The east side of the lake is an example because the county commission is approving high-density development in areas where the current comprehensive plan designates it as rural. The same is happening in the Mica area south of Coeur d’Alene where agricultural land that isn’t classified for development is being covered with homes. The Athol area is in the same situation, Mussman said adding that’s the reason the comprehensive plan becomes political. He expects a lot of debate and reiterates that’s why it’s important to include residents in the discussion.

“If it’s truly a community vision that controversy should be a lot less evident,” he said. “Then the elected officials will buy into it.”