A neighborhood group took the Kootenai County Commission by surprise Friday, demanding a one-year moratorium on building on the east side of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
It’s an idea that bristled builders, developers, real estate agents and others who fear that stopping building on the nearly 30-mile stretch of highway, which snakes along the lakeshore from Wolf Lodge past Harrison to the state Highway 3 intersection, could destroy the economy.
Yet Neighbors for Responsible Growth insists the break would actually help the county better prepare for the area’s booming growth by allowing the completion of five crucial studies:
“A multiagency study of the Highway 97 corridor and how much traffic it can withstand in the next 20 years;
“Rewrite of the county’s comprehensive plan, which is the foundation of all land-use decisions;
“A multiagency lake management study to gauge the impact of growth on the lake;
“A state study to determine how much water is withdrawn from the lake each year;
“And a county study on whether to collect impact fees on development to help pay for growth.
Spokeswoman Bev Twillmann said the studies would give the commission the facts needed to make “truly responsible decisions.” She characterized many of the county’s previous land-use rulings as “reckless” and said they have made Highway 97 more dangerous and jeopardized wildlife, groundwater and the lake’s quality.
“They’re like noxious weeds that keep spreading further and further,” Twillmann told the commission, referring to a handful of large housing developments and luxury golf retreats proposed in the last several years along the highway corridor.
Because it wasn’t a legally posted meeting, the commission didn’t discuss the moratorium proposal or allow anyone else to comment. Commission Chairman Rick Currie said the commission would decide in the next week or two whether to take up the proposal at a public meeting or let it die.
“Because this could get out of hand, we have to be really strict on the rules,” Currie told the audience, a mix of group members and people from the development industry who had heard about the meeting.
Coeur d’Alene Association of Realtors President Kenn Gimbel questioned how a small group of residents can limit the property rights of others.
“It seems overreaching and heavy-handed,” Gimbel said, adding that it could cost developers millions of dollars in delays. “It could financially ruin some of these people”
The proposed moratorium would cover any requests for zone changes and any new building or development larger than a single-family home.
Rand Wichman, the former county planning director who now is a private land-use consultant, said a moratorium isn’t the solution because none of the listed studies will be concluded within 12 months.
Instead, he said, the county needs to put more money into the Planning Department to hire additional staff with the needed qualifications and experience.
Wichman lives off Highway 97 and represents several developers including Heartland LLC of Seattle, which want to build three golf courses and luxury second homes on 1,642 acres overlooking Powderhorn Bay near Harrison.
Twillmann said there are about 550 full-time residents and 1,500 homes along the lake’s east side. With all the new housing proposals and the projects already approved, she estimates 2,400 new homes in the next several years, which is a 160 percent increase.
She added that those numbers don’t include new homes for people who already own individual lots.
“Moratorium is not a bad word but an effective and responsible tool,” Twillmann said.
The commission was scheduled to have a one-on-one meeting with Twillmann, but instead about 50 people jammed into the commissioners’ office, forcing staff to move the meeting to a larger room and request attendance by the county planning director and county attorney.
After the meeting Twillmann said that if the commission chooses to ignore the group’s request, they will take it to voters by getting a moratorium proposal on the ballot.
She hopes the county will give an answer before the commission’s April 18 town hall meeting in Harrison.
“If nothing happens by then they will see some very angry and very aggressive citizens,” she said.