By BRIAN WALKER
COEUR d'ALENE — Out with the opt-out option on the Kootenai County building permit process.
County commissioners late Thursday night voted 2-1 to nix the opt-out option that was implemented last year.
The decision came after four hours of emotional testimony from more than 60 people on both sides during a public hearing attended by roughly 250 people at North Idaho College's Schuler Auditorium. The majority of those who spoke wished to keep the opt-out program going.
Commissioners Chris Fillios and Bill Brooks voted to make the county's building permit process strictly mandatory, while Leslie Duncan want to keep the opt-out option in place.
"I view building codes as the bare minimum," said Fillios, adding that the controversial topic is a health and safety issue. "If you want to make opt-out permanent, it should be done at the state level."
Duncan said she believes it's sad that society has become fearful without government oversight. She said she supports the opt-out option because it involves personal responsibility.
Duncan said she was impressed with a young couple who spoke in favor of opt-out and are working hard to build a home.
"We have a society of young people who believe they are entitled to certain things without work," she said. "Hard work, setting goals, accomplishing things … that's what gives people purpose. America is about choice. This opt-out gives us a choice."
Brooks said there was nothing that he heard or read during the comment period that made him change his mind.
"There was a lot less theatrics and name calling on both sides (compared to last year)," he said. "I appreciate that."
With the decision — about 60 people remained at the auditorium at 10:30 p.m. when it was rendered — the building permit process will become mandatory again on April 29.
The opt-out program does not impact the building permit processes within city limits.
A year ago, county commissioners, on a 2-1 vote, adopted the opt-out option after a hearing that drew an overflow crowd at the 400-seat Kroc Center.
The ordinance gave residential property owners the option to obtain a location permit in lieu of a residential building permit and associated accessory buildings. The option exempts the property owner from compliance with adopted codes, permitting and the county building inspection process.
As of Thursday, there had been 263 regular single-family residential permits issued and 244 opt-out projects since that option was implemented.
The two commissioners who voted in favor of the opt-out option, Bob Bingham and Marc Eberlein, did not win re-election bids.
Setting up Thursday's hearing was among the first priorities of the new-look board in January. During the campaign season, Brooks wanted to do away with the opt-out option, while Duncan wanted to give it more of a chance. Fillios, the lone board member who opposed the opt-out option last year, maintained that position on Thursday.
As of Thursday afternoon, the county had received about 104 written comments in favor of nixing the opt-out option and 69 in support of maintaining it. However, at the meeting another 99 were submitted in support of opt-out and seven were submitted to remove the option.
Kootenai County community development director David Callahan called for both sides to work together to solve problems going forward.
"I have seen how this issue has pulled us apart as a community," Callahan said. "I am sorry for that. I, for one, am all about dialogue and open process. I'd appreciate the opportunity to keep the dialogue active and reach across our differences to find each other. I sincerely hope we can reach that point."
Opt-out proponents believe the option cut bureaucracy, while opponents say it opened the door to substandard construction.
Brent Regan, chairman of the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee, presented a resolution passed by the group that called for Fillios to recuse himself from the debate and voting.
The resolution states that Fillios, an associate broker with Tomlinson Soetheby's International Realty, sent an email on Feb. 28 containing sample letters opposing the opt-out option to real estate agents and chamber of commerce members. The email also had instructions on where to forward the letters to be reviewed by county commissioners.
"A commissioner requesting or even suggesting that individuals who may come before the (board of county commissioners) take a public position in a matter before the (board) has the appearance of being unethical and is clear indicia of bias," the resolution states.
"Chairman Fillios has violated public trust by taking multiple, deliberate steps to contaminate and bias the public record which would be used as a basis and justification for the decision of all three commissioners in this matter."
Fillios blasted the resolution, saying it was "completely out of order" and that Thursday's hearing was a legislative matter, not a quasi-judicial one as indicated.
"Just as a state legislator you elect can advocate for his or her point of view, I can do the same," Fillios said prior to the hearing. "When you're talking about ordinances, we have every right to advocate."
"Last year, when Bob and Marc wrote papers on their points of view for opt-out, I didn't hear the central committee pose any objection then."
Fillios said the email was sent from his private email and he didn't specifically ask the recipients to take a stand but, even if he had, it would have been within his right as a commissioner to do so. He said he also consulted the county's legal team before the hearing.
The Kootenai County Democrat Central Committee, meanwhile, submitted a resolution in support of getting rid of the opt-out option.
"The codes currently provide an opt-out provision that may cause for unsafe and/or unfair practice in home construction and property values, insurance rates and financing opportunities for Kootenai County residents are negatively affected by improperly constructed building structures," said Ruben Miranda, a KCDCC member, citing the resolution.
Realtors, some builders and business advocates were among those in favor of reinstating a mandatory building permit process.
"We believe that having building codes optional in our county is detrimental to our growth as any of those actions can adversely affect property values, county assessments, insurance ratings, the safety and cost of homes and the desirability to move a company to our region," a letter by the Coeur d'Alene Area Economic Development Corporation (Jobs Plus) states.
"Building codes and the implementation and inspection of these codes safeguard the interests of the people and establishes our county as an area that values this safety."
Realtor Chelsea Hosea said homes that have not gone through the building permit process harm all parties involved.
"We have clients who live locally and are coming from out of state to purchase real estate," she said. "They all share their concerns with myself and others on why this opt-out of building codes is even an option. People are following this and aware of what this means for Idaho. This will have a long-term affect on our state and we do not believe this should remain an option."
Coeur d'Alene's Michael Marvinny said the opt-out option presents economic, health, safety and nuisance impacts.
However, multiple people said they moved to rural North Idaho for personal freedom away from government control. They said the opt-out option provided liberty.
Athol's Robert White, who has experience as a general contractor, said many homeowners construct improvement projects without permits and there isn't a crisis of shoddy construction.
"We don't see homes falling down and people getting hurt," he said. "There's enough information out there that people can build safe homes. I don't think people want to hurt themselves."
Harrison's Patrick Stroud said he supports opt-out because he believes there's already enough government control.
"Let the lending institutions decide what they want to finance," he said.
Rathdrum's Hendrik Mills said county inspections on privately-built buildings are unnecessary.
"If a buyer doubts the quality of a homeowner's work, he's going to hire a building inspector anyway," he said. "I always have when my wife and I buy property. We need less bureaucracy, not more."
Coeur d'Alene's Karen Jones said having options is the backbone of freedom.
"In Idaho, especially Kootenai County, we live here for the freedoms afforded that are restricted elsewhere in the U.S.," she said.
Hayden's Jim Connell said keeping the opt-out option encourages individual responsibility, which has eroded in this country in recent years.
"There's fewer people interested in accepting responsibility; we need to bring that back," he said. "When an individual wants to take responsibility we should be encouraging that. Society becomes stronger. Let the people, if at all possible, take care of their own lives."
Tom Hanley said he built a pole barn under the opt-out option and called it a painless and less expensive process.
"Please don't administratively protect me," he said. "We the people protect ourselves."
Eberlein and Bingham both spoke in support of maintaining opt-out and have building projects under that option.
Property owners who apply to opt out have still been required to meet state requirements for electrical, plumbing and mechanical permits. Panhandle Health District and fire district requirements still apply as well.