BOISE – Dredging and pile-driving for the controversial Sand Creek Byway in downtown Sandpoint are scheduled to start next week, even though a federal judge still is deciding whether the project violates the federal Clean Water Act.
U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge this week denied a request for a temporary restraining order against the project, ruling that the Army Corps of Engineers and Idaho Transportation Department should have a chance to respond before he decides whether to issue an injunction stopping the project. Those responses are due in the coming weeks, with a hearing, if needed, scheduled for Dec. 11.
In the meantime, the Idaho Transportation Department plans to press on with construction.
“ITD stands by its compliance with the requirements of the Clean Water Act,” said spokesman Jeff Stratten. “The commencement of construction at this time of low water is critical to avoid additional delays.”
Dredging of Sand Creek is scheduled to start Friday and last for two weeks, according to the department.
The project to move north-south traffic on U.S. Highway 95 off downtown Sandpoint’s streets has been in the works for more than five decades.
Opponents object to the decision to build the bypass as an elevated highway along Sand Creek, between the city’s downtown and its lakefront on Lake Pend Oreille.
“It’s the town’s waterfront – it’s gorgeous,” said Liz Sedler, executive director of the North Idaho Community Action Network. “I mean, towns would die to have that amenity.”
NICAN filed motions in federal court seeking a preliminary injunction against the project, contending it departs from plans approved in 2000 by adding a third lane and putting the new highway on solid, concrete-walled embankments rather than on a bridge structure with widely spaced piers designed to reduce impacts to the creek below.
“Mature trees and all other vegetation will be cut along Sand Creek’s eastern shoreline, massive concrete walls will be built, and Sand Creek will be dredged and filled with approximately 84,000 cubic yards of crushed rock and concrete,” NICAN said in court documents.
The group argued that the federal Clean Water Act prevents the Army Corps of Engineers from permitting damage to wetlands and waterways when “practicable alternatives” exist that would cause less adverse impact – and that the original, 2000 plan is such an alternative.
The modified plan, in addition to a wider highway, includes fill and a shoreline extension to accommodate a new bicycle and pedestrian path along the route.
Stratten, of the ITD, said, “The terms of the … permit and design of the project were extensively reviewed with the public, including the pathway, which was overwhelmingly favored.”
Among dignitaries who gathered in Sandpoint on Oct. 30 to celebrate the groundbreaking for the project were Gov. Butch Otter and Sen. Mike Crapo.
Sedler said NICAN is reviewing its legal options.
“ITD is going to forge ahead no matter what – that’s always been their attitude,” she said. “… That’s been their attitude from the get-go, that there’s nothing going to stop this thing. I’m beginning to think they might be right.”