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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Planning Department staff stretched thin

Kootenai County can barely keep pace with how fast landowners are dividing their property for housing developments.

In 2004, the number of subdivision requests received by the county Planning Department increased more than 100 percent. This rate is expected to remain constant or perhaps even increase dramatically in 2005, County Planning Director Rand Wichman said.

“I’m very reluctant to predict what will happen,” Wichman said Monday. “I didn’t think it was possible we would double it from the previous year. It’s the precursor to population growth. You gotta have a place to put (new residents).”

Wichman said the “unknown” probably drove a lot of people to get their applications in before the county adopted the new rules in December.

A North Idaho Building Contractors representative agreed with that theory.

Wichman recently compiled a year-end report for the Kootenai County Commission showing how busy the planning and building departments were in 2004.

The county processed 43 preliminary subdivision applications – 22 more than in 2003. It reviewed 76 short plats, which are requests for subdivisions with fewer than four lots. In 2003, the county processed 38 short-plat requests.

Overall, land-use applications, including conditional use permits, variances and subdivision applications, increased more than 100 percent.

Wichman said the subdivision numbers don’t illustrate how many new houses were allowed in each request. But the county did issue 486 building permits in 2004 for single-family homes. That’s down 24 homes from 2003.

Other than having hard numbers to express the frantic land-use activity in the county – whether it’s building homes or how land is zoned and used – the information shows why these two departments need more staff, Wichman said.

“They are getting hammered,” Commission Chairman Gus Johnson said, adding that when budget talks begin, the commission will have to decide whether hiring more planning and building staff is a priority.

Building inspections are one area where most everyone agrees the need is obvious, because the number of staff inspectors has remained the same for 14 years. Last year, county staff did 10,632 inspections compared to 7,379 in 1990. And that was with the same number of inspectors.

“It would be nice if the county would fund some support there,” said Bob Grossglauser, past president of the North Idaho Building Contractors Association.

At one point this summer the backlog was nearly three months for an inspection. Grossglauser said county staff worked hard to get it back to the normal two-week wait.

“The biggest thing is understaffing,” Grossglauser said. “The numbers don’t lie.”

As new people move to Kootenai County, the easiest-to-develop land, such as the flat Rathdrum Prairie that connects easily to well-established roads, is covered with homes first. Most of the easy land already has been developed, Wichman said.

That leaves the more sensitive areas, such as steep hillsides and areas along wetlands.

Johnson said that makes the job tougher for the commission and service agencies, such as schools and highway departments.

“I’m not saying no growth,” Johnson said. “I’m saying we have to be smart on what we are doing.”

Carol Sebastian of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance said the county must start specifically indicating which areas it wants developed and what areas it wants to preserve before Kootenai County loses the very thing that attracts people to the area. She said there are lots of groups from KEA to the building contractors that would be willing to help the county develop a master plan.

“You really need to look at where you want to grow and what you want our communities to look like,” she said.

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