Protecting our shorelines

Amendment to ordinance could help builders, prevent nutrients from slipping into local water bodies

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Building by the water can be beautiful.

And tricky.

Environmentalists are wary that water quality could be endangered by a proposed amendment to a Kootenai County ordinance for shoreline building.

But members of the construction industry say the change would clarify rules for development in environmentally sensitive areas, and allow more opportunities for waterfront projects.

"It will certainly be better for building," said Larry Jeffres, spokesperson for North Idaho Building Contractors Association. "In its overall protection of water quality, (the amendment) has also taken into account unique circumstances where contractors or homeowners can accomplish their construction goals."

Kootenai County Building and Planning has proposed clarifying and adding exceptions to sections of the county's site disturbance ordinance, a law that restricts building activities in buffer areas along riverbanks and shorelines.

The ordinance's purpose is to protect bank vegetation and prevent nutrients from slipping into local water bodies. But the law's restrictions are ambiguous, and have caused confusion about when and where certain standards apply, said Scott Clark, Building and Planning director.

"It is an ordinance that has been recognized for a long time to need work. It's one of those that has been difficult for staff as well as difficult for the public," said Clark, adding that the county commissioners asked for the amendment. "We're hopeful it (the amendment) will make it a better document and still protect the county, but at the same time make allowances that are reasonable and necessary along our shorelines."

But Terry Harris, executive director of Kootenai Environmental Alliance, worries that part of the amendment would open up buffer zones to a dangerously broad variety of projects.

"There just aren't any standards to it," Harris said. "The reason you have that ordinance in place is to keep sediment nutrients and erosion from running off into water bodies. The lake in particular needs to be protected from those nutrients."

The amendment, which the commissioners will hold a hearing on next month, would tweak the ordinance's language to spell out and streamline building standards in buffer areas.

It would also provide three exceptions allowing certain development activity within those buffers.

The first would allow mechanical ground disturbance in buffer zones for authorized developments, if need is shown in a professional technical report.

The second would make use of mechanical equipment possible in buffer areas for purposes like remedying erosion and repairing natural structures.

Harris said KEA is rankled by the third exception, allowing the commissioners to consider and approve building activities in buffer zones for projects of such size, scale and regional economic benefit that they would be in the public's best interest.

That opens up the floodgates of construction, Harris said.

"It is not bounded or limited by anything. It could be as big as a resort, it could be as small as a boat ramp repair," Harris said. "It calls for just a subjective judgment that the project is more important than the water quality protection of the site disturbance."

Clark said the third exception is intended for projects not yet on the county's radar.

"In some areas of the county, and Coeur d'Alene is one, it's multi jurisdictional. Sometimes the coordinator of projects can be difficult," Clark said. "This is going to provide the ability to make that more seamless."

The other exceptions will allow for shoreline projects that can't be accomplished without mechanical equipment, he added.

"There are folks who have historical developments going back to the 1940s, and they need to do some repair there and it's not really possible to do it by hand," Clark said.

Gary Young with Verdis, previously E2 Planning and Design, is relieved to see the amendment.

His company has been pushing for the county to clarify the ordinance for some time, he said.

"At one time it was interpreted in one way, and in the last few years, been interpreted another," Young said. "We were running into a lot of confusion, as to when things can take place, or when improvements can be replaced."

He thinks the third building exception could apply to projects for public use, he added - like if the Coeur d'Alene City Council decides to relocate the McEuen boat launch.

"This allows the commissioners to look at that from a regional benefit," Young said.

Jeffres said the amendment would allow more construction activity on waterfront lots on steep slopes.

A positive step, he added, because of the popularity of waterfront development here.

"Obviously the (current) restrictions start dictating what kind of structure you can put up," he said.

The amendment also includes adopting new measurements of high water marks for county lakes, which will now be measured according to the North American Vertical Datum of 1988.

Marc Stewart, representative of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe that controls half of Lake Coeur d'Alene, said the tribe is following the amendment's progress.

"The tribe is committed to protecting the environment, including reducing the amount of nutrients going into the lake," he said.

The county commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed amendment at 10 a.m. on April 7 in the board chambers in the Kootenai County Administration Building.

Controlling nutrients that enter Lake Coeur d'Alene and its connected rivers has been a priority for local, state and tribal governments, to ensure metal contaminants remain on the lake bottom.

Jeffres said builders will be careful to maintain water quality.

"They're in the business to responsibly develop," he said. "I believe the development community has become keenly aware of the environmental impact."

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