Judge upholds sawmill expansion

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SANDPOINT — A district judge is rejecting allegations that Bonner County acted illegally in approving the controversial expansion of a sawmill in the Selle Valley.

The Bonner County Planning & Zoning Commission approved the Alpine Cedar mill’s expansion in 2015, but curtailed its hours of operation in acknowledgment of ongoing complaints from neighboring landowners who said noise and traffic from the mill was destroying the rural ambiance of the bucolic valley.

Bonner County’s board of commissioners overturned P&Z ruling and loosened the hours of operations at the mill, which manufactures grilling planks, wraps and smoking chips for Wildwood Grilling. The board ruled that P&Z overstepped its authority and produced a decision which was not supported by the public record.

Landowners petitioned for judicial review of the permit approval, contending that county commissioners rendered a baseless decision. Opponents of the expansion further argued that they were not given proper notice of the appeal which relaxed the mill’s hours of operations or afforded due process when county commissioners conducted a site visit of the mill off East Shingle Mill Road in 2016.

But 2nd District Judge Jeff Brudie shunted those arguments to the scrap bin on Monday.

Brudie held that commissioners reached a reasoned decision in permitting expanded hours of operation. The board articulated its reasoning for overruling P&Z and backstopped its decision with findings of fact and conclusion of law after conducting a public hearing. Moreover, Brudie ruled that foes of the expansion were not entitled to a notice of appeal because they were not party to it due to the fact that the appeal was pursued by the permit applicants.

Brudie also concluded that the county commission’s decision was not arbitrary or capricious. While commissioners did not address every possible contingency, Brudie ruled that the board had no obligation to do so.

Commissioners visited the mill and evaluated noise levels from the property line. The mill’s owners and the county agreed to evaluate from the property line because that’s where noise thresholds were measured. The mill’s owners were also uneasy about the public walking around an operating sawmill.

Expansion opponents argued that the mill was not required to run all its various equipment during the site visit and they were unable to observe industrial activities at the mill, which meant the safety of the conditional use permit could not be properly vetted.

Brudie noted that commissioners took a boots-on-the-ground approach to understanding the noise levels emanated by the mill and obtained confirmation from mill operators that the noise was an accurate depiction of mill operations.

“While petitioners have repeated argued that the noise level during the site visit didn’t represent the usual noise output of the mill, they haven’t provided anything more than subjective assertions showing this to be true,” Brudie wrote in a nine-page opinion.

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