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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kootenai County voters to decide on $50 million bond for open spaces, as other Inland Northwest communities continue preservation efforts

A convertible motors past a canola field along Idaho state Route 53 on the Rathdrum Prairie in 2003.  (BRIAN PLONKA/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Kootenai County will ask voters in November if they want to tax themselves to protect undeveloped, natural areas of the county and stem rampant growth through a process that has analogs across the region.

County commissioners agreed earlier this month to put a $50 million bond measure before voters Nov. 7. Proceeds from the tax, which would cost property owners an estimated $8 per $100,000 of assessed value or the median home owner in the county about $29 annually, would be set aside to fund the purchase of undeveloped land, with particular attention paid to the Rathdrum Prairie. That area of farmland separating the cities of Rathdrum, Post Falls, Hayden and Coeur d’Alene has been the site of rampant growth in recent years, including the approval in March of a 2,800-home development project that will link Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene.

Kootenai County Commissioner Bruce Mattare said the ballot question will grant opportunity to area residents concerned about the pace of growth in the county, which increased 24% between 2010 and 2020 to 197,000 people, to weigh in on continued growth. The county’s population is expected to reach 320,000 residents by 2045, according to the latest modeling from the Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“This is an opportunity for the citizens to have a direct say on the rate of growth in this county,” Matarre said. “It’s their way of saying, we’re willing to kind of pay a couple dollars extra to purchase open space and make it land that can never be developed.”

The Inland Northwest Land Conservancy, a nonprofit founded in 1991 that identifies and promotes the preservation of open spaces in both Eastern Washington and North Idaho, has not yet taken an official stance on the ballot measure. But its potential to conserve land and promote public access aligns with the group’s priorities, said Dave Schaub, the conservancy’s executive director.

“The ongoing conservation of valuable habitat, open space and publicly accessible lands in Kootenai County fits squarely within our mission,” Schaub said. “If passed, this bond would help accelerate that work.”

Of particular interest on the Rathdrum Prairie is the effort to supplement and extend the Prairie Trail, a 4-mile -long paved path that begins at Riverstone Park in Coeur d’Alene and ends at Huetter Road, said Mike Crabtree, the conservancy’s director of conservation.

“This type of funding could just really increase the momentum,” Crabtree said.

Idaho state law permits counties to seek a bond to purchase undeveloped land “for scenic and recreational purposes.” The law also requires that the bond pass with approval of ⅔ of the vote.

The commissioners have created a website to pitch the bond issue to those voters in a county that has been reticent to increase fees in the face of rampant growth. In November 2020, voters overwhelmingly rejected a $50 vehicle registration fee intended for specific road improvements in the county to address congested roads.

Matarre said approval of the measure would have many positives, including the preservation of land for recreational purposes. But the website also mentions purchasing land above the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer for protection and to ensure continued recharge of the water source by reducing impervious surfaces. Allowing public purchase of some land could also reduce traffic congestion, and even save tax money in the long run by preventing an overload of public infrastructure, such as sewer systems, commissioners say.

“I think you could look at this as there’s a number of benefits,” Matarre said.

The open spaces bond has been successfully implemented by other governments in the West. In Missoula County, Montana, voters have agreed to a pair of bonds for open spaces, including a $10 million bond in 2006 and a $15 million measure in 2018. The first bond was successful in protecting 15,000 acres of public land in the county, through both the bond proceeds and grant money that was leveraged from the bond, said Juniper Davis, manager of Missoula County Parks, Trails & Open Lands.

“Our community has had great support for them, every time we have put these bonds on the ballot,” Davis said.

Bond proceeds have helped protect land on Mount Jumbo, a popular hiking, mountain-biking and scenic range of mountains to the northeast of the city. More recent acquisitions have included what are known as conservation easements in rural areas, which provide wildlife a chance to roam and prevents future building, Davis said. The city and county are currently working together under the 2018 bond to acquire 480 acres that includes the former Marshall Mountain ski resort to preserve for future recreational activities.

Davis, a native Missoulian, said the project has been successful in Montana because of a community spirit favoring preservation.

“It’s less a fear of development, and how things are going to change,” she said. “It’s a sense of place and connection to this area, and a desire to make sure it’s here for future generations.”

Spokane County’s efforts to preserve open spaces have for years been channeled through its Conservation Futures Program, a tax that was first approved by county commissioners in an originally divisive vote in 1993. The program, which can levy a tax of up to $6.25 per $100,000 of assessed value in the county but has traditionally been far less, has gone on to become a prolific partnership between the city and county for protection of natural spaces. As of October 2022, the program had protected 9,254 acres, according to the Spokane County Parks Department.

If the Kootenai County measure passes, an advisory board would be set up similar to that in Missoula to recommend potential property for purchase.

“The first step is that the community approves it, as enshrined in the statute,” Matarre said. “After that, we would set up the proper procedures to go out and find these open spaces.”

The election will be held Nov. 7 in Kootenai County. The deadline to register with the county clerk for that election is Oct. 13.