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

Land use proposal drives Kootenai County races

A proposed overhaul of Kootenai County’s land development rules whipped up a storm of criticism last year and drove the three county commissioners to dump a Texas consultant hired to do the update.

The controversy over the ill-fated Unified Land Use Code also motivated two small business owners – both champions of private property rights – to run for the county Board of Commissioners.

Republicans Marc Eberlein and David Stewart would form a solidly conservative alliance opposed to regulations that infringe on residents’ ability to develop their land. They are challenged in the Nov. 4 general election by Democrats Bruce Noble and Jerry Shriner.

Land use isn’t the only burning issue in the campaign.

All four candidates also have weighed in on the county’s long-running effort to ease jail crowding. Voters have turned down three tax measures for jail construction, and the latest proposal – to let a private company build a 625-bed jail and lease it to the county for 20 years – was rejected by a district court judge in August.

County employee pay and morale are also on the minds of the candidates. Surveys show that many Kootenai County workers earn well below standard pay for their positions, and an internal survey of employees earlier this year revealed considerable job dissatisfaction. Many said they feel the commissioners do not value the employees.

The sheriff’s office and jail contend with high staff turnover as deputies recruited and trained here leave for better pay and benefits in Spokane County and other jurisdictions – an ongoing problem the candidates say must be resolved.

Eberlein vs. Noble

The new development rules proposed last year, then shelved, were to reflect the county’s comprehensive plan for growth, adopted by commissioners in 2010. One goal of the comp plan is to concentrate most growth in cities where services can be provided and allow rural areas to develop in ways that maintain their character.

Rural residents railed against the changes, arguing the county was trying to prevent them from developing or subdividing their land. The commissioners backed away from the consultant’s proposal and decided to approach the task in-house.

The county should not influence where people live through regulations, said Eberlein, a Post Falls resident who defeated incumbent Todd Tondee in the primary. If people want to move to rural areas, they should be free to do so, he said.

“I would insist that the needs and vision of the county residents be put before those of special interests and developers,” he said.

The existing code is broken and needs to be cleaned up, Eberlein said. But he favors incremental changes to do that, and said commissioners also should review the comp plan “in light of the current economic and demographic realities.”

Noble, a Post Falls civil engineer and land surveyor, said he is intimately familiar with land use regulations from his professional work in North Idaho and Eastern Washington.

The proposed Unified Land Use Code was cumbersome and did not define a clear path to development, he said.

“I think it needs to be rewritten in a simpler, more concise form that gives specific direction for development and protects private property rights,” including the ability to subdivide larger tracts, Noble said.

Both candidates oppose the idea of a privately owned, publicly operated jail.

The county needs to reconsider earlier plans to expand the existing jail, Noble said. He said the county should work to lower the jail population, such as by diverting more misdemeanor offenders to alternative programs.

“We need to find ways to keep from incarcerating people,” he said.

Eberlein said it would cost the county too much in the long run to rent the privately owned jail that Rocky Mountain Corrections proposed building.

“If we did build something new, if there was a need, I believe it’s something that the county should own,” he said.

The Rocky Mountain proposal included extra beds available to lease to other jurisdictions to house their inmates in the county. Both Noble and Eberlein said Kootenai County doesn’t need to take in prisoners from other areas.

Eberlein said voters have had enough of over-regulation and expensive consultants. He said if elected he’ll demand more accountability, transparency and fiscal restraint.

Noble, who describes himself as politically moderate, also favors a change in the structure of county government. Instead of three full-time commissioners, the county would be better served by five part-time commissioners working with a county manager, he said. Also, all party offices should be nonpartisan, he said.

Noble and Eberlein are running for a four-year term in Position 1.

Stewart vs. Shriner

Stewart, who lives on Cougar Bay, said the county’s land use code update would have turned much of the rural areas into “conservation land” and “financially crippled a lot of the rural property owners.”

He said land use regulations must strike a balance between property rights and community interests.

“The Unified Land Use Code was able to motivate the masses out there in the rural area to come to the county and show their opposition. … That’s how bad the code was,” Stewart said.

Shriner, who lives on 60 acres on Rockford Bay, said the county still needs sound land use planning. He said he also supports private property rights, but noted, “Land use policies don’t just limit what I can do on my property, they also protect my property from what my neighbor might do on his property.”

Commissioners need to consider a broader array of views to improve the land use code, Shriner said.

“We’re doing a disservice to the community if we leave everything open and everybody gets to do what they want,” he said.

Shriner said his background in corrections and experience working with government agencies and nonprofits makes him well-suited to help solve the county’s jail space dilemma.

The county can stem the increase in the jail population by enhancing programs such as drug court and mental health court, probation services and work release programs, he said.

It may be necessary to add maybe 10 percent more jail beds in an expansion, Shriner said. “Beyond that, it makes more sense to design for future expansion rather than build now,” he said, adding that he opposes the privately owned jail option.

Stewart also supports expanding the jail. But whether the county pursues an expansion or new construction, the county must own the facility, he said. The Rocky Mountain proposal held too many risks for the county, he said.

Stewart said the county also must fix the problem of high turnover in the sheriff’s office. “They need fair pay to what the competition is here locally,” he said.

A big worry, he said, is that the sheriff has too few experienced employees to ascend into supervisory positions as senior staffers retire, he said.

Shriner agreed that comparatively low county salaries, as well as low morale and job dissatisfaction, are serious issues.

“I don’t know that we can fix the pay issue but I think we can fix the morale issues,” he said. “We can do a lot about how we treat our employees.”

Stewart and Shriner are running for a two-year term in Position 2. The incumbent, Jai Nelson, did not seek re-election.

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