A group of Post Falls neighbors who live on the south side of the Spokane River are challenging the approval of a 57-home subdivision on what was an abandoned hayfield in their neighborhood because they fear more septic tanks could endanger their drinking water .
The proposed 28.5-acre development, called Bayshore Estates, will be the subject of a public hearing at 6 p.m. Thursday before the Kootenai County Commission at 6 p.m.
“To begin with, we are documenting that it is over the (Rathdrum Prairie) aquifer,” said Ron Utz, who has lived about two blocks from the proposed development for 42 years. “The whole area is concerned about putting 57 septic tanks right next to our drinking water wells.”
The owner, Jess Goetz, is selling the property to Big Creek Land Co. It hired former Kootenai County Planning Director Rand Wichman, who currently operates his own private firm but continues to serve as planning director for Dalton Gardens and Hayden Lake, to draw up the planning request.
Wichman noted all of the neighbors who are attempting to stop the subdivision have septic tanks over the same area. “There is no evidence of contamination from their systems,” he said.
Wichman met with officials from the Panhandle Health District and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and specifically asked whether those officials had any issues regarding the accumulative effect of 57 new septic systems.
“Neither the health district nor DEQ have expressed any concerns about contamination,” he said.
Those same issues also were reviewed by Kootenai County Hearing Examiner Joan Woodward, who ultimately recommended the commission approve the development request.
Woodward noted the intense opposition from neighbors about traffic impacts and concerns about wastewater in 2018 when the commission renewed its zoning change allowing for the proposed half-acre lots.
“With this in mind, and based on the comments received from all of the jurisdictional agencies, staff cannot find any evidence to recommend the denial of the request,” Woodward wrote in her decision.
The neighbors contend the commission should wait for the completion of current efforts to redraw the boundary for the aquifer, which is the sole source of drinking water for the entire region. At some point in the late 1970s, the aquifer boundary was drawn essentially at the shore of the Spokane River to the north.
Regulations generally prohibit septic systems over the aquifer unless the parcel is 5 acres or larger. The proposed Bayshore Estates parcels are all a half acre or a little less, which is the same size as most existing parcels in the area.
“Those are the rules that the development industry lives with,” Wichman said. “We can only do what the agencies tell us is legal and appropriate. It’s clearly on the nonaquifer side of the line for purposes of regulation.”
The new homes would get their drinking water from the Greenferry Water and Sewer District. Utz, who sits on the water district board, said the wells that supply water to all the neighboring homes are located just north of the proposed development.
Water that seeps into the ground generally would move toward those wells, he said.
“How can you predict even with all the testing that they do?” he said.
Wichman, however, said the existing district wells are to the northeast of the proposed subdivision.
“Our studies show the water will flow north or to the northwest,” he said. “If they do have issues with those wells, the existing septic tanks probably are more in the flow path than this site will be.”
Another neighbor, Sue Anderson, emailed her concerns but did not want to answer questions in person. Anderson wrote that she has data from the water district that shows the 57 septic tanks could add 1.2 million gallons of sewage and chemicals to the soil every month.
“As proposed with 57 new drain fields adjacent to our aquifer wells, is not even good for the developer,” Anderson wrote. “If he gives full disclosure to buyers of the new lots, he’d have to admit that what they flush today, they may be drinking tomorrow.”
Wichman said he questions Anderson’s numbers. Assuming the 1.2 million gallons of sewage was correct, that would mean that every new house would be flushing about 21,000 gallons of sewage into their tanks a month, or about 677 gallons a day.
According to a U.S. Geological Survey of 2015, Post Falls residents used between 214 and 304 gallons a day for all residential uses, which means much of that water does not become sewage.
Utz and Anderson said they hope to present information to the commissioners that show a new line for the aquifer, which would encompass the disputed property and therefore require the developer to follow the 5-acre rule.
Wichman said he, too, believes the aquifer line eventually will be changed.
“But we are not to the point where we have changed the rules where the 5-acre limitation for septic system applies,” he said. “So, this property is allowed to have one septic system on a half acre like all of the neighbors are.”
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.