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Neighbors push to preserve CdA’s Fort Grounds

Marlo Faulkner drives through her Fort Grounds neighborhood in Coeur d’Alene on Thursday. She is upset about the plans to tear down a home and build condos there. “It’s about people who love their neighborhood,” she said. (Kathy Plonka)
Marlo Faulkner drives through her Fort Grounds neighborhood in Coeur d’Alene on Thursday. She is upset about the plans to tear down a home and build condos there. “It’s about people who love their neighborhood,” she said. (Kathy Plonka)

One family plans to build condos in CdA Fort Grounds, but other neighborhood residents are putting up a fight

The homes facing Lake Coeur d’Alene between downtown and North Idaho College are among the most coveted and priciest pieces of real estate in the city. And what happens along that alluring stretch of shoreline certainly gets noticed.

One family living there will tear down its 100-year-old home this fall and start construction on four condominiums priced at nearly $1 million each.

The redevelopment plan has sparked a movement to preserve the nature of housing in the venerable Fort Grounds neighborhood, and about 90 residents there have signed a petition supporting the effort.

“It’s about people who love their neighborhood and want to keep it as a single-family, historic district,” said Marlo Faulkner, who has lived in Fort Grounds most of her life.

They want the city to adopt a special-use permit that designates all lots in the neighborhood as single-family residential use only. That would require owners to get special permission from the city to build multiple units on a lot – a tall hurdle that could thwart such projects.

But it won’t stop Rick and Roxanne Gunther from moving ahead with their Craftsman-style condo project. The couple – he’s a Realtor, she’s an architect – got their building permit Wednesday and plan to start demolition next month on their 7,000-square-foot house at the corner of West Lakeshore Drive and Military Drive.

“I think people that own their property have the right to do whatever they want with their property as long as it’s within all the code requirements, and that’s what we’re doing,” Rick Gunther said.

They’ve lived in the neighborhood 32 years and in their current home since 2005. They had it on the market in recent years but only had four showings, said Gunther, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Schneidmiller Realty.

“It’s just a maintenance nightmare – very expensive for heating,” he said. “It would be nice to just sell it … but nobody wants a big house like this anymore.”

Adjacent neighbors are fine with the project, Gunther said, but he’s not surprised others in Fort Grounds object.

“I think when you do any type of change in any type of neighborhood, you’re going to have some kind of opposition,” he said.

Tucked tightly between the community college and City Park, Fort Grounds is dominated by old homes, many of them built for Army officers stationed at Fort Sherman in the late 1800s. The narrow, tree-lined streets offer limited parking for residents and visitors.

“We’re concerned about the impact on the neighborhood, but primarily the concern is to preserve the nature of the neighborhood,” Faulkner said.

The flap is reminiscent of a condo development controversy on the east side of Tubbs Hill in the 1990s. In that case, residents voted to change the zoning to single-family homes only.

The Gunthers plan to live in one of the units and already have found buyers for the other three. Rick Gunther, who has sold a couple dozen homes in Fort Grounds over three decades, said his project is not really a departure from changes already underway in his neighborhood.

“Fort Grounds is going through a transition,” he said. “People have been tearing homes down, building new homes and doing extensive remodeling on their properties, and that’s been going on for a long time. We have an apartment building, we have duplex, we have commercial. It’s just pretty much mixed-use.”

He also cautioned against new restrictions that could affect the resale value of lots.

“That’s a big issue for people that are buying properties down here,” he said. “That is a negative.”

The Fort Ground Homeowners Association is close to turning in the petition to put its special-use application before the Planning Commission. The group needs signatures of owners of 75 percent of the land within the neighborhood and is about four-tenths of an acre short of that mark, Faulkner said.

News that the city issued the Gunthers’ building permit this week surprised Faulkner and others behind the petition drive. In talks with the city staff, they had understood the permit would take a couple of months.

“We were all blindsided yesterday,” said Ann Melbourne, president of the homeowners association. “They assured us it couldn’t happen this quickly.”

It’s unclear if the group could have halted the Gunthers’ project, but the homeowners association said it was prepared to ask the City Council to impose a six-month moratorium on building permits in the neighborhood – a tactic to buy time to work on the special-use permit petition.

But Melbourne said the association opted not to go that route – on the advice of the planning staff and Assistant City Attorney Warren Wilson, the city’s interim planning director.

Wilson said Thursday the city kept the homeowners association up to speed on the entire permit process.

“We have told them that essentially if (the Gunthers) submit for a building permit, they have an absolute right to have their permit reviewed against the laws in effect at the time the permit is applied for,” Wilson said.

“Our process is it comes in, it gets processed and when it’s ready to issue it goes out the door,” he said.

Faulkner is skeptical of how quickly the permit sailed through the city’s review when so many residents have raised concerns about the project. But she also said she worries about a proliferation of condo projects that could follow.

“This is just the beginning.”

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