SPOKANE — The Kootenai County Commissioners are considering a request by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to rezone some 25,000 acres of reservation land to slow development and preserve natural resources.
The tribe wants to rezone the area west of Lake Coeur d’Alene from rural to agriculture, which would prevent private property owners from subdividing parcels of 20 acres or larger.
“We don’t want to see our land cut up for the monetary benefit of a select few who will come in, make a huge profit and then move on when there’s no more land to be bought,” Gene James, vice chair of the tribal council, said at hearing last week in Coeur d’Alene.
But property owners say it will devalue their land.
David Callahan, community development director for Kootenai County, said there has been a striking increase in minor land division applications in recent years.
Tyrel Stevenson, legislative director for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said a principal concern is preserving ground water, which is in short supply, as well as preserving open spaces and the reservation’s rural character. He said there are similar land use and zoning issues on the southern part of the reservation in Benewah County, but development in Kootenai County is more concerning because it is closer to population centers.
Since the tribe asked for the rezoning two years ago, the process has gone through several open houses, workshops and hearings.
The main difference between the zoning is that rural parcels can subdivide down to 5 acres, while agriculture parcels can subdivide to no less than 20 acres. Parcels already less than 20 acres would remain rural and could still subdivide to 5 acres.
The land represents about 3% of Kootenai County and is mostly homesteads, small farms and timberland.
“This case is a bit unusual in its size,” Callahan said.
The tribe or the Bureau of Indian Affairs own about 11,500 acres, while about 13,600 acres are privately owned.
In April, the county planning commission recommended approving the rezone with a 5-1 vote. Now, the county commissioners have four options, Callahan said.
They could follow the recommendation and approve the rezoning; they could approve the rezoning but exempt the property owners who are opposed; they could deny the request altogether; or they could send it back to the planning commission if they think an amendment to the comprehensive plan is needed.
Callahan’s recommendation, if they approve the rezone, is to exclude any planned unit developments already approved, including for the Black Rock golf club.
If the commissioners exempt property owners or deny the request, they would need to have a second public hearing, since those would be material changes, county legal counsel Pat Braden said.
The commissioners will make a decision on Aug. 10.
Last week, many non-tribal property owners spoke against the rezoning, saying it could harm their property values.
Some said they had no intention to subdivide, but the rezoning infringed on their property rights.
Steven Syrcle, an engineering consultant representing the Buell family who owns several parcels, presented the commissioners with 61 opposition letters that he said were signed by owners of almost 10,000 acres.
“A rezone of this magnitude of will have a significant decrease in property values and tax assessments,” he said. “This will generate, in my opinion, a loss in tax revenue, which several supporting agencies depend on to provide services in this area.”
Callahan and Stevenson said the fears about property value are overstated.
From what he has studied, the market, not zoning, is what drives property values, Callahan said.
“I don’t buy it, frankly,” Callahan said.
Stevenson pointed to the remaining reservation land in the county, already zoned for agriculture, where property values are high.
Fewer parcels drives demand higher, he added, and there are a lot of costs associated with subdividing.
Stevenson said the zoning map was flawed from the beginning, and the area should have always been agriculture because that is how the land has predominantly been used.
Theron De Smet, an attorney representing two timber companies, said the proposal is not consistent with the county’s comprehensive plan.
Kroetch Land and Timber owns 719 acres in the affected area, and Stimson Lumber owns 400.
“This is a fundamental downzoning,” De Smet said. “Kroetch Land and Stimson do not voluntarily acquiesce and agree to have their properties downzoned.”
A staff report prepared for the commissioners by a planning consultant determined that the rezoning is “predominantly consistent” with the land use designation in the comprehensive plan but acknowledged the northern portion of the area includes a “country” designation, which calls for allowing subdivisions.
The comprehensive plan also seeks to give full consideration to property rights and avoid involuntary downzoning, unless there is a clear public purpose and the change is “in the interest of health, safety and welfare.”
The tribe argues that it is in the public interest, and the majority of planning commissioners agreed.
Callahan believes the county is going to be sued regardless of what the commissioners decide.
“It’s a lose-lose proposition from my view,” he said.
Stevenson said the tribe asked for the zoning change in order to avoid a protracted court battle to determine the gray areas of the tribe’s jurisdiction.
Laurin Scarcello, a Rathdrum Prairie farmer, suggested a fifth option: instead of mandating the zoning, put incentives in place to encourage open spaces.
At last week’s meeting, most property owners spoke against the rezoning, but two spoke in favor.
“I feel grateful to live here,” said Tim Weston, who owns 20 acres and is not a tribal member. “I feel grateful the tribe is sticking up for their land.”
In 1887, Congress passed an act that allotted 160 acres to each tribal member. Because of disease, there were not many members left at that time, Stevenson said. So, the remainder of the reservation land was made available to non-tribal homesteaders.
That land was lost without the tribe’s consent. Ever since, Stevenson said, the tribe has been slowly buying private land on the reservation at market value when it becomes available.
James emphasized that the tribe wants to protect the land not just for the tribe, but for everyone in the future.
“We will never return to the days where we are the sole occupants of this land,” James said. “We understand and we have accepted wholeheartedly and with open arms when non-Indians arrived. We welcomed them in, sometimes to our detriment, a lot of times to our detriment.”