Voices

Economic downturn helps Sandpoint prepare for its next growth spurt

It appears there is an upside to the downturn in the economy after all. According to Sandpoint’s city planner Jeremy Grimm the lull in growth has allowed the city and its citizens to work diligently on its comprehensive plan – a map that will help steer Sandpoint’s development and growth for the next 20 years.

“It (the economic slowdown) has been a perfect storm in a good way for us,” said Grimm, adding that the plan is in response to the rapid growth experienced earlier this decade. “It allows us to prepare ourselves for the next wave of growth.”

The last time Sandpoint’s government prepared a comprehensive plan was 1977. But since Grimm was hired in the spring of 2007, his primary focus has been on working with the community to develop a plan that will take the city through the next two decades.

Grimm and his committee sought input from a large cross section of the community through many different approaches – large public meetings, surveys, and being present at many community events such as the Bonner County Fair and the Festival at Sandpoint.

“It (the rapid growth) really woke people up,” said Grimm, adding that the result was additional funds being allocated for various plans including the Urban Area Transportation Plan, a Parks and Trails Plan and a Comprehensive Plan.

The comprehensive plan was presented to the Sandpoint City Council in the spring of 2009 and after a total of 23 meetings and workshops, the council unanimously adopted it in February 2009.

The 122-page document addresses several topics including property rights, school facilities and transportation, land use, population, economic development, natural resources, public services, facilities and utilities, recreation and housing.

“But the zoning is really where the rubber meets the road,” said Grimm.

According to Grimm, back in the 1920s the Supreme Court granted cities the power to protect its citizens’ health, safety and welfare.

“Welfare has been interpreted by the courts to also mean the character of a community,” said Grimm.

The previous zoning laws did little to ensure consistency with the comprehensive plan, said Grimm. But parking lots, landscaping, residential space and building height were all part of what he and others deemed important to ensure that the Sandpoint area became a desirable place to live and visit.

“My charge was to bring to the planning commission the skeletal framework (of the plan),” said Grimm.

From there the commission used its own personal knowledge of the community, its history and desires for the future to fine tune the plan. Grimm provided the research on various codes throughout the country which had resulted in the type of community Sandpoint strives for.

“We had at least 10 public meetings on the development of the commercial code,” said Grimm.

In a meeting last month, the city council passed the first part of the zoning revisions that were addressed in the comprehensive plan – the commercial zoning laws.

The language of the new law was an effort to strike a balance between bringing incentives to downtown developers as well as ensuring the city did not over regulate growth.

In an effort to bring more residential properties to the downtown corridor, the new zoning law allows for buildings up to 65 feet high so long as at least 50 percent of the structure above 35 feet is devoted to residential use.

Also, all buildings must be capable of accommodating a second floor. Therefore, if a new structure is built as a single story, its walls and infrastructure must be such that it can accommodate an additional story in the future.

Grimm said it was the goal of the comprehensive plan to make Sandpoint unique among other western mountain towns and to make Sandpoint a place where people can walk to work, church or to do their shopping.

He said several areas, such as Hayden, have several strip malls and big box stores. Sandpoint residents want something different.

“We are trying to make our commercial areas attractive and a place where people want to be,” said Grimm.

Under the new zoning law, parking may not be built in front of new structures; instead it must be built either behind or on the side of a new building thereby allowing passers-by to enjoy a window shopping view. Buildings must be up against the lot line with the exception of public art or a civic area – a place where people can congregate and relax on a bench or enjoy a cup of coffee – between the building and the sidewalk or street.

Grimm said that if they prove to be highly successful with their plan, the result will be a desirable place to live, work and play.

“The challenge then becomes affordability,” said Grimm. “We have to be vigilant to be sure it does not become a playground for only the wealthy.”

But even after three years, Grimm said there is still much work to be done. “We have another year worth of code reform and regulatory development.”



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