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Corps to end development reviews

Planners in Kootenai and Bonner counties are concerned that the federal agency that oversees wetlands no longer plans to review subdivision and other development requests.

Comments by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are valued in these fast-growing resort areas and help county commissioners make well-informed decisions on whether to approve housing developments and other land-use requests. Planners say the corps reviews help ensure that property owners aren’t harming wetlands and are aware of potential federal permits.

“While I understand they are shorthanded, I think it’s important to provide us with comment,” said Cheri Howell, Kootenai County’s interim planning director.

Some watchdog groups are even more upset.

“Developers will see this as a wide-open market,” said Bev Twillmann of Neighbors for Responsible Growth.

Brad Daly, chief of the Walla Walla District that oversees Idaho, sent Kootenai and Bonner counties near-identical letters April 12 stating that the corps will no longer provide comments on county land-use requests.

Daly said Monday this isn’t just a North Idaho situation but is happening across the West in booming areas. He thinks Kootenai and Bonner were the only Idaho counties to get letters. Those are places where his staff is overwhelmed and unable to do its primary responsibility of processing and evaluating permits to dredge or fill in rivers, streams and wetland areas overseen by the agency.

People who apply for corps permits aren’t getting answers in a timely manner.

“That’s one of the things breaking down,” Daly said.

The Coeur d’Alene office has only one person to handle the five northern counties. At one time, the office had three workers, but one retired, and the other is on assignment in the Middle East, doing reconstruction work.

Daly said the office needed to cut back, and the county reviews were at the bottom on the priority list.

He said he’s unsure how the reviews even helped counties because they didn’t provide much information. Often the corps was unfamiliar with the property and its wet areas, Daly said.

If the site did contain wetlands, the corps would remind the county that a permit was needed if the development would disturb the area.

He said the proactive part was alerting property owners that they need a permit.

He doesn’t foresee any disastrous results. The worst case is perhaps a property owner not learning early in the process that a corps permit is needed, he said.

That’s exactly why Bonner County Planning Director Clare Marley said the corps review of projects is so crucial.

“It’s easier to move a road before it’s designed and they have bulldozers out there,” Marley said.

Unlike Kootenai County, Bonner County doesn’t yet have rules requiring developers to survey property for wetlands and provide a professional report so the county can ensure the project won’t harm those sensitive areas.

Bonner County is in the process of rewriting its land-use rules, but that will likely take several more months, Marley said. Today developers use an outdated 1987 wetland map as a guide, she said.

North Idaho Building Contractors Association President Charlie Rens doesn’t see the corps involvement as necessary, only a courtesy check and balance.

He takes issue with concerns that the corps’ decision will encourage developers to avoid wetland permits and regulations.

“Developers aren’t out there trying to pillage the land,” said Rens, who is part of the newly formed group Citizens for Balanced Growth.

He said Kootenai County does a great job of overseeing each application and watching for environmental concerns.

Howell said the Kootenai County Commission plans to send Daly a response letter outlining its concerns.