SANDPOINT — In a surprise move at Tuesday's commissioners' meeting, Bonner County officials approved an amendment to the planning and zoning code, removing the requirement for Panhandle Health District review of building location applications.
Previously, the ordinance, Title II, Section 110-A of the code, mandated that prior to county approval, any building location permit application must be sent to PHD for review to verify it met requirements for septic and drain field location as well as specific setbacks required by lake and river environmental protection regulations.
Once the health district signed off on the building plan, the county would issue approval, and the builder could move forward, securing required permits such as electrical and septic, and breaking ground.
As a result of the revision, PHD review is no longer required and the county can permit such projects as submitted.
According to Lora Whalen, director of Panhandle Health District, her organization was not expecting the revision.
"We heard about it Friday," she said.
At Tuesday's meeting, Bonner County Planning Director Milton Ollerton presented the agenda item for the commissioners' consideration. He prefaced his remarks with the comment that PHD was planning to increase its review fee from $75 to $125.
"We've reviewed it from every angle ... we considered adding a list of exemptions to make it less onerous on the property owners," he said. "There are other counties that do not require this sign-off. It made sense to ask the board to approve removing 110-A from the ordinance."
Whalen did not agree.
"We'll have some issues that we could have prevented. Last year, we did 176 building locator review, and 10 to 20 percent of those required some sort of alterations to the plan submitted," she said. "One thing we have seen through experience is that when we do a complete review prior to construction, (we save people money in the long run)."
For example, if a construction crew damages a septic drain field and the property does not have space to install a replacement, that could prevent the owners from adding a bedroom to the structure later, due to health regulations, she said. One of the factors PHD staff considered in their building locator reviews is whether reserve space existed for just such contingencies.
Whalen's colleague Dale Peck, environmental director at PHD, also addressed the commissioners.
"We've proposed to minimize the areas we are reviewing. If we review only high-risk properties, I think we could reduce costs," he said, also pointing out that of the approximately 800 building locator applications submitted to Bonner County the previous year, only 176 required a full review and fee by PHD.
"It's their drain field; it's their problem; it's their land," said Commissioner Cary Kelly, referring to homeowners. PHD reviews are "the kind of paternalism we're trying to get rid of."
He did not address the question of neighboring residences that could be affected by an improperly placed or damaged septic system.
Others who spoke were not in favor of the code revision.
"If you are removing the PHD endorsement to help your constituency, you are not," said Will Valentine of the Bottle Bay Sewer District. "We want to help our customers avoid the costly mistakes that a review could prevent."
"We received very little notice on this issue," said Erin Mader, program coordinator for the Lakes Commission. "I'm convinced there's a water quality threat." She invited the commissioners to attend her upcoming commission meeting for further discussion.
The commissioners passed the proposed revision but did not close the door on ot completely. Wednesday, they met again with Whalen and Peck.
“We have more time to refine it and facilitate it in terms of how we set this up," said Commissioner Todd Sudick, noting the changes would not take effect for 30 days.
Councilman Glen Bailey suggested adding a caution to any building locator permits the county issues saying that the location of the planned building may not be acceptable for sewer permit.
“If there’s trouble with the process, we’ll come back and we’ll figure it out," said a resigned Whalen.