How have we ended up here?

How have we ended up here?

At the last public hearing to discuss the proposed amendment to shoreline regulations on Sand Creek on September 21st, Planning & Zoning Commission chairman Jason Welker simply asked everyone present, “I kinda wonder how we ended up here.”

From what I’ve been told, the amendment all began with the city’s realization that the proposed development at Farmin’s Landing, as currently designed, would have been in violation of the 25ft vegatative buffer (setback) for commercial development along Sand Creek.  With the Farmin’s landing project having broad community support, including significant expenditure of resources to date, the city sought to remedy the issue in the form of a code amendment.

Sand Creek Downtown Waterfront Concept Courtesy the City of Sandpoint

Simply put, the amendment to Title 9 completely eliminates the 25ft vegetative buffer and allows “structures” within the setback down to the high water mark for the entirety of commercially zoned property adjacent to Sand Creek.  The amendment also clarifies several definitions the city felt exposed to from a legal standpoint.  For the record, LPOW has no problem adding clarity to certain terms and rewriting pieces of code that present the city with unreasonable liability.  Quite the opposite, we want the city to remain in good standing so that it can protect our water and ensure quality projects

I appreciate the city bringing concerned organizations such as ours into the conversation. I also believe the city is acting in good faith in its attempt to protect our waterways. However, the proposed language has brought up a multitude of new questions and in my mind has yet to hit the mark. This seems clear as demonstrated by lengthy questioning from P&Z commissioners and the eventual denial of the amendment, with a recommendation they hold a workshop on the matter.  This is an important topic as it could easily be the guiding language for downtown shoreline development for the next 25-50 years and deserves careful consideration.

It’s clear from the city’s Comprehensive Plan that providing public access to and along our waterways while protecting the integrity of our natural resources are critical goals.  Both of these items are addressed in the stated purpose of the ordinance, hence dovetailing nicely.

Unfortunately, I think the wheels start to fall off the bus when you begin to examine what types of development would be allowed under the proposed language and where the development incentives are for quality projects.  While maybe not the intention of the city, this language supports projects that develop a plaza-like shoreline, with no restrictions on retaining wall height or building materials, constructed right to the water’s edge. It’s a potential concrete jungle for over 8,000 lineal feet of shoreline.  I know this is not what the city is driving at, and while there may be some language suggesting certain criteria to be followed: aesthetics, public access, stormwater, etc…, there is no requirement, or incentives, for developers to construct projects that may include items that would be considered beneficial to the public.

Looking down Sand Creek at the current marina and boardwalk

I believe that by working together, there is an easily attainable win-win for everyone.  Simply hold onto the existing 25’ vegative setback, then provide an exception for those projects that provide a “Public Benefit.” Public Benefit is then defined by the city.  The definition lays the groundwork and supports city staff’s ability to make their Findings of Fact during the application process.  Public benefits could be defined with various criteria, two of the most important being providing public access and enhanced or improved stormwater management. This clearly incentivizes developers who may want to take advantage of the area within the setback.  Knowing that your project requires some form of public access and improvement to water quality from the beginning enables quality projects and discourages detrimental ones. This approach also gives the city leverage in negotiating a variety of issues on behalf of the public, as it ultimately decides what constitutes a “Public Benefit.” Farmin’s Landing will provide public access and stormwater management to the public’s benefit. Done!

Throughout the discussion regarding the amendment, the “legal rights” the city may or may not have to write or enforce a code unfortunately filled a good portion of the air time. In my opinion the city simply deflected many good suggestions without comprehensive legal explanations.  The “Public Benefit” concept was actually suggested to me by two extremely seasoned land planners, whose combined experience in the field exceeds 50 years. Both have written code for municipalities as well as taken advantage of loopholes for developments in the private sector.  This approach is legal and utilized, period!  Many cities around the country, including in Idaho, protect their shorelines from poorly designed and destructive development in a variety of ways. Overlay zones, buffers, rules for riparian areas, and more are all used to protect our nation’s waterways. If we all work together there is absolutely no reason we can’t do the same. 

We will keep you posted regarding future hearing dates and please feel free to contact our office to discuss the matter at any time. At our next “Keeping up with the Waterkeeper” on October 7th, 5:30pm-7:00pm by Zoom (unfortunately for now), we will be discussing this issue in depth.  Check out our event on our website or on our Facebook page (or click here to RSVP now!).

NOTE: LPOW also encourages city residents to support the City’s 1% Local Option Tax (LOT).  The stormwater improvement slated for Farmin’s Landing collects stormwater from approximately 28 acres of the downtown core and will lay the groundwork for introducing a variety of technologies in the way the City of Sandpoint manages this source of pollution.