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Critics cry foul over moratorium on sewer hookups in Spirit Lake, saying it stymies growth

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 23, 2019

Spirit Lake Mayor Renee Eastman gives a tour of the sewer expansion on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. Spirit Lake has a building ban in the city limits due to their sewer being at capacity. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Spirit Lake Mayor Renee Eastman gives a tour of the sewer expansion on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. Spirit Lake has a building ban in the city limits due to their sewer being at capacity. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The economic forces of construction and development that drive many North Idaho communities has come to a halt in Spirit Lake because of a basic public service: the sewers.

The small town ran out of room to store and treat more waste two years ago, so city leaders issued a moratorium on new hookups.

Business owners and developers cried foul. They say the problem had been years in the making and summarized the entire issue as old versus new.

Mayor Renee Eastman, with her deep roots in the community, acknowledges that she liked Spirit Lake when it was much smaller.

“I kinda liked it when it was just 733 people here, but things change,” said Eastman. “I expect within at least 10 years, the prairie will just be gone.”

However, business owners and developers in Spirit Lake questioned the need for the moratorium in the first place and criticize Eastman for what they say is a lack of government transparency and heavy-handed opposition to growth.

“They didn’t want their town to grow that much, mostly the mayor and city council,” said Bill Daume, owner of a construction company that builds frequently in the area. “I don’t think it really has too much to do with the actual sewer. They’re just trying to figure out a way to stop people from building in their town is what they told me.”

The problems began in August 2017, when former mayor Todd Clary and the Spirit Lake City Council approved a 90-day moratorium on new building in the city that required a sewer connection. The city engineer said Spirit Lake’s sewer lagoon was near capacity.

“There is imminent peril to the public health, safety and welfare if the amount of effluent discharged into the sewer lagoon exceeds its design capacity,” City Council meeting minutes read.

Later that year, Eastman, fed up with the sewer issues, ran for mayor and won. Clary is her cousin.

But it took Eastman two years to make progress on the town’s sewer limitations.

“It depends on which faction you talk to,” said Marc Kroetch, owner of Fresh Air Bikes in downtown Spirit Lake. “Some people blame the previous administration. Others blame the current administration for lack of forethought.”

Daume doesn’t quite believe that the sewer is as big of an issue as Eastman made it out to be.

“There is no reason for a sewer moratorium,” Daume said. “(Spirit Lake’s) sewer lagoons are completely dry and all the land has already been subdivided and had sewer ran to it, so I don’t see how they could have a problem with the sewer.”

For Eastman, running for mayor in 2017 was all about addressing the future of infrastructure in Spirit Lake.

“The past administration kept selling building permits when we were in trouble with the sewer system, and I couldn’t understand why,” Eastman said. “To steer Spirit Lake in the right direction and be responsible for our infrastructure, I just felt like there was no other choice but to run and try to change that.”

Eastman was born and raised in Spirit Lake. She married another longtime resident, Luke Eastman, who is the lead sewer plant operator.

What started out as two homesteads 100 years ago is now the Eastmans’ land, combining two Spirit Lake families into one.

“The roots run deep here,” Eastman said.

When it comes to the sewer issue, Eastman noted that Spirit Lake is not the lone town in North Idaho that has struggled with wastewater treatment.

“Everybody around us is having the same issues,” she said.

Since the 1980s, wastewater from Rathdrum has been pumped to Post Falls for treatment, Eastman explained. The cities of Post Falls, Rathdrum and Hayden worked together under the Rathdrum Prairie Wastewater Management Committee to create infrastructure for wastewater management.

The cities are all considered a part of the Rathdrum Prairie and continue to grow at a rapid clip.

That growth has spread to Spirit Lake as the cost of homes rise throughout Kootenai County.

Spirit Lake is home to 2,500 people. About 17.3% of the population lives in poverty, according to United States Census Bureau.

“For affordability reasons, people have moved north,” said longtime real estate broker Tom Torgerson.

The Spirit Lake sewer moratorium has had a significant affect on home and land prices, Torgerson said.

“It’s a severe financial onus on anyone that’s holding land,” he said. “They’re missing this great market right now.”

Bullying over building

About five years ago, Jeremy and Jocelyn Hinz moved to the edge of Spirit Lake and started setting up their forever home in a big log house on 40 acres.

“Our dream home, our dream property,” Jeremy Hinz said. “We thought we would never leave,”

“We really invested our life into that town,” Jocelyn added.

Jocelyn is a real estate agent and the couple bought up some property, flipped a few houses and started planning to open an RV park.

The RV park plan was modeled after those in Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls that offer long-term living situations, Jocelyn Hinz said.

It would have been situated in town near residential neighborhoods on three acres of industrial land, owned by the Hinzes.

The property happens to be next to the Eastmans’ home.

“To us, this RV park was going to be a good addition to the town, meeting a need, because Spirit Lake is relatively low income and rents are going up like crazy, so it would have provided a more affordable housing option for people,” Jocelyn Hinz said.

The couple decided to move forward by submitting site plans to the planning and zoning committee, despite the moratorium on new sewer connections.

“We knew we wouldn’t be able to hook up to sewer or anything until the moratorium was lifted, but development takes a while,” Jocelyn Hinz said. “We wanted to get that ball rolling.”

Initially, the site plan was accepted but a few days later the couple got a call from Eastman saying they needed to come pick up their check because the plan would not be accepted for evaluation due to the moratorium.

Site plans are evaluated by the city planning and zoning committee before being approved by City Council, which the mayor presides over.

The couple “went back and forth” before involving their lawyer, who argued only building permit applications were specified as not being accepted in the sewer moratorium.

The couple submitted their site plan again at the urging of their lawyer only to have Eastman call to say planning and zoning would not accept the application. Again.

The couple filed a lawsuit against the city and Eastman in January.

Initially, the court ordered Eastman to “cease her interference with submission and transmittal” of the Hinz’s site plan application to planning and zoning, according to court records.

The city and Eastman initially fought the lawsuit but ultimately settled with the Hinzes.

While the suit was behind them, the Hinzes say the lawsuit started a “series of events” that led to them picking up and moving from what they thought was their forever home to Texas.

“They started calling all these emergency council meetings,” Jocelyn Hinz said. “These council meetings were during the day, called 24 hours before the meeting, during the weekday, where they started changing ordinance after ordinance pertaining to our project.”

Mayor Eastman said she had no personal reason to oppose the RV park and when the Eastmans built their home on the property 15 years ago, they knew the adjacent land was zoned for industrial use.

“It’s really sad because the city could use an RV park,” Eastman said. “But it’s got to be in our codes and ordinances that people have to follow.”

Eastman also denied the allegation that she and City Council changed ordinances specifically to make the RV park harder to build.

The Hinzes also noted that the majority of City Council has been appointed by Eastman, which they said gave her more control.

Eastman did appoint two of the three current city council members and chose not to fill the fourth spot after the previous occupant died.

“It eventually got to the point where we were so targeted that we didn’t think we could do anything in Spirit Lake,” Jeremy Hinz said.

So the couple picked up and moved to Texas, where they now reside.

“We just saw the direction the town was going, which honestly wasn’t a good one in our eyes, for where we wanted to raise our kids and the business that we do, which is real estate,” Jocelyn Hinz said.

Sewer Solution

In May 2018, voters passed a $1.8 million bond to addanother lagoon to the sewer system.

The new lagoon will add 530 sewer hookups to the system.

Keeping the sewer under capacity will help with the build up of wastewater during the winter months when irrigation is not possible, Eastman said.

Despite the new lagoon, only about 200 building permits will be available beginning this week after the moratorium was lifted on Oct. 16, Eastman said.

And the City Council and Eastman continue to look at land in the area to purchase and expand the lagoons to increase the sewer capacity to allow for the city to build out all the land inside its boundaries, Eastman said.

‘Change is always hard’

Looking to the future, Daume doesn’t plan to buy any more lots in Spirit Lake.

“I definitely wouldn’t plan on doing any type of subdivisions or anything,” he said.

Daume said he believes Spirit Lake is a good place to live, but the current government is not helping growth.

“Well, I mean, it’s a good place to live in if they would have a regular government that wasn’t so anti-growth,” Daume said.

The main change Daume would like to see is the ouster of Eastman.

“I think if they get a different mayor or something eventually it will all be fine but … everything’s done all backroom, backwoods, backwards,” Daume said. “They don’t really follow any laws or anything.”

Eastman acknowledges that not everyone in town likes her or her approach to being mayor.

“It’s like any small community, you’ve still got people you know would rather have the old mayor versus a new mayor,” Eastman said. “Change is always hard on anybody.”

When it comes to transparency, Eastman said more information is readily available at city hall than it has been in the past and that she is regularly available to answer questions.

“You can’t please everybody,” Eastman said. “You just try and do your best, what you think is right for the community as a whole.”

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