COEUR d'ALENE - It was a powderkeg that darn near went off in the Kootenai County Courthouse Monday night.
Luckily, the Coeur d'Alene Fire Department was able to snuff the fuse by informing the Kootenai County Planning Commission that its meeting was over capacity, so it was canceled.
But not before a few sparks went off.
Pressure started building in 2010 after Kootenai County adopted a new comprehensive plan and decided to update its land use codes to enforce the new plan.
As the proposal was being developed, county officials met with several community groups, advisory groups and affected land owners to explain their intentions. Still, after years of meetings, it became apparent during a forum on the subject earlier this month that many county residents are still frustrated.
That all came to a head Monday night.
The first in a series of four public hearings designed to take comments on the controversial Unified Land Use Code proposal was held in the county's main floor conference room at 6 p.m.
Nearly 300 people packed themselves into the 150-capacity room and dozens more spilled out into hallways.
Tensions were high when people started showing up at 5 p.m. to get a seat. A hundred chairs filled up by 5:30 p.m., and the head count in the room was approaching 200 people.
It was standing room only, and cramped at that.
By 6 p.m. dozens of people who could no longer fit in the meeting room jammed three doorways to try and hear the meeting.
Planning commission Chairman Wes Hanson opened the meeting with a series of rules and instructions on how he expected the crowd to behave.
Judging from the grumbles in the room, they were in no mood for that.
Bret Keast, president and owner of the consulting company that wrote the new code, was introduced and he started to give a presentation on what was contained in chapters 1-3 of the new ULUC proposal.
As he tried to explain how his company tried to simplify the code and make it easier to understand, the crowd started to grumble again.
As it turns out, the crowd was in no mood for that either.
First it was a woman shouting: "You are wasting our time."
Keast recovered from that, but as he tried to go on, it just got worse.
"When is the public comment period going to start?" one woman yelled.
Then a man jammed in the very back of the crowd stopped the meeting dead with his comments. He knew he was out of order, and volunteered to leave, but not before he gave the commission a piece of his mind.
"This is typical," he yelled. "You are wearing us down with this. First there are no chairs and you aren't going to give us any time to comment."
After that, Keast quickly wrapped up his presentation and public comments began, but only six people were able to voice complaints - often to raucous applause - before the entire meeting was stopped.
Patty Shea, a spokeswoman for Avista, commented that the new proposal does not adequately deal with electric and gas utility issues. She said despite working very closely with the consultant while he developed the proposal, it still was not specific enough for Avista to be comfortable with the new code.
"There is no mention of natural gas in this document whatsoever," she said, yielding the podium to another Avista employee who started to explain the company's issues in detail.
That's when the meeting was interrupted by Coeur d'Alene Fire personnel. They handed a note to the chairman informing him the room was over capacity.
"I have been given a note that we need a recess," Hanson said.
After a short huddle with the firefighters, Hanson reconvened the meeting.
He told the audience they were going to have everyone who was not seated leave the room and they would allow people to file back in until capacity was reached. The rest of the crowd would have to wait outside the room, until space came available.
That did not go over well. The crowd erupted and refused to leave. Nervous tension hung in the air. It was a showdown.
Hanson reconvened his huddle with fellow commissioners and decided to end the hearing.
"We are going to seek an alternative space," he said, explaining that when the commission found such a place the public would be "legally noticed" of the time and place of the rescheduled hearings.
"I am sorry for this. I did not schedule this room," he said. "I apologize that this occurred and I encourage you to come back."
That was still not enough to appease the crowd.
"Will the comment deadline be extended as well?" several people started asking.
Hanson asked the commission's civil attorney, Pat Braden, if the comment period could be extended.
"I would advise an extension," he said.
Before the meeting was extended and adjourned, the crowd made sure the commission understood that the new location had better be big enough to accommodate even more people.
One man asked if the volunteer commission would make the meeting earlier so they won't run into middle of the night, and one even suggested holding the meetings on Saturdays.
Hanson said the commission would work on the details and try to get out notices as soon as possible. Once the date is selected the commission must post notice 15 days in advance of the hearing.
He assured the crowd that the testimony collected Monday night would be preserved in the record and the crowd dispersed.
As the hearing broke up, Rick Cramer of Carlin Bay said he is new to the issue, but from what he gathered Monday night, he is not a fan of the proposal.
"It's like they are trying to make the county a giant homeowners association," he said. "When Keast said if you want to give piano lessons in your own home, you have permission to do that.
"That's what homeowners associations do," he added. "It sounds like they are trying to micro-manage what people can do with their own property."