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Rand Wichman: Finding middle ground on land use

by Brian Walker; Staff Writer
| January 22, 2017 12:00 AM

As a land-use planner, Rand Wichman said he needs to be as much of a people person as someone who convinces decision makers that a project is the right fit for the property.

"It's very much a people business as much as it is land use," he said. "Land use is so personal to people."

Wichman said he not only represents builders, developers and property owners who are proposing projects or zoning changes, but he oftentimes, when directed by his clients to do so, addresses neighbor, environmental and other concerns about the proposal.

"It really depends on the client," he said. "Some are eager to work with neighbors. Some are not interested at all and don't believe they need to be accountable to neighbors.

"I give my clients recommendations (on what extent to work with neighbors and community groups), but ultimately my clients decide. Depending on the situation, both approaches can be successful."

Whether Wichman was Kootenai County's community development director during the booming years before the recession or helping developers and property owners pick up the pieces from the crash as a private land-use consultant these days, the even-keeled Wichman has had his hands on many of the largest and most controversial local projects over the past 25 years.

Wichman worked at the county when leaks were found at the BNSF Railway refueling depot at Hauser. The leaks threatened the Rathdrum Prairie aquifer, the region's drinking water source.

As a private consultant, Wichman represented the controversial 1,800-acre Powderhorn Ranch project near Harrison before it fizzled during the recession.

Today, his projects include The Club at Rock Creek, an 899-acre golf course community on the west side Lake Coeur d'Alene that is proposing 411 total lots. The project north of Loffs Bay Road was originally approved in 2005 as Black Rock North under developer Marshall Chesrown before in went into foreclosure in 2009.

A 100-lot subdivision in Harrison called Stonegate that's planned to come online this year and be revived from 12 years ago is another project Wichman is working on.

He's also executive director of the Coeur d'Alene Lakeshore Property Owners Association that weighed in on shoreline regulations in the county's recent Land Use and Development Code update.

Finding solutions to project requests, when directed that way by clients, is something Wichman takes pride in.

"When there's controversial projects and it doesn't look like there's any good solutions, it can be rewarding to find a solution that works for everybody," he said. "Finding middle ground can be one of the most rewarding parts about this job."

• • •

Have you ever been threatened over project proposals by angry residents?

When I was with the county I had a guy show up at my house one time and threatened me enough to where I reported it to the sheriff's department. There have been times where people stood up at public hearings threatening to go get their guns out of their truck to do something about it. While these have occurred, I have never felt meaningfully threatened or scared. Sometimes people don't deal with their emotions in an appropriate way. That's the nature of this business.

Do you have any specific memories you'd like to share about those long land-use public hearings of the past?

As a planner I was working on a new set of regulations that had a provision prohibiting excavation activities during the winter. It got controversial and there were about 100 mad excavators. One guy testified, "All I have to say is glass stomach." When the planning commission chairman ask to clarify, the man said, "Who ever wrote this (provision) must have a glass stomach. You have your head so far up your a-- that you have to have a glass stomach to see." It can be a tough job and you take some abuse, but much more so as a public employee than you do in the private sector. Those are always great learning experiences.

What's it like to work with people who can have such differing views on land use?

You certainly meet some interesting characters in this business. There's the old-school guys who always did things their way. You meet neighbors who have strange opinions. You meet clients who have strange concerns and fears. Every once in a while I have people who get to me, but you have to do everything you can to listen to folks and hear their concerns even when they're not being respectful. You've got to rise above that because, at the end of the day, their concerns and fears need to be addressed.

What would you say is the project that had the most impact on the community that you've worked on?

The leaks in the concrete at the BNSF refueling depot. That was a big deal. I processed that application as a staff member at the county. It was shut down while repairs were done. That was one of the most controversial projects I had been involved with during my 15 years at the county. The public hearings on that took three nights. That was unprecedented at that time.

What project received the most attention during your time in the private sector?

Powderhorn Ranch because it's 1,800 acres, three golf courses and 1,200 residential lots. The annexation (in Harrison) was completed along with the concept, but it was never built because of the economy. Someone could still pick up the ball and run with it. I still manage the property for the owner (Jim Fox). But that's part of the market that has not recovered up here sufficient enough to pursue in my opinion.

What was your focus for the Coeur d'Alene Lakeshore Property Owners Association in the recent code update?

I assisted them with getting shoreline regulations revised. We received much greater flexibility for property owners to do maintenance work and other improvements provided that it's still protective of the water quality. Before it was difficult to get anything done in the first 25 feet of shoreline. Owners can replace retaining walls and stabilize slopes and before they couldn't go into the zone.

How would you describe recent growth trends in Kootenai County?

Growth has certainly returned to Kootenai County, but what we haven't seen since the recovery is many large rural subdivisions in the unincorporated area. That's due to a lot of unsold inventory out there. There are a lot of minor subdivisions with two to four lots and that has been steady for the past couple years. Overall, the county is on the right track and be best days are still ahead of it. It's a great time to be here. I've been to most of the 50 states and I live here on purpose.

In your opinion, how have residents' opinions changed overall regarding growth and land use from when you started working here about 25 years ago until now? Or has it?

Twenty years ago people had a different philosophy when it came to land use. They were very much hands off. You leave me alone and I'll leave you alone. There was much less public participation in the land-use process than there is now. Now the pendulum has swung the other way in that people feel entailed to have a say in what everybody does with their property. That's what makes this business more difficult than what it used to be.

What was your upbringing like?

I had a great family life with one brother and one sister. We grew up in a small town of 1,600 people — Wautoma, Wis., in the central part of the state. We were blessed to live on a lake so most of my childhood was spent there either on the boat in the summer or ice fishing in the winter. We didn't have that much money, but we never seemed to do without. I'm certainly not a big city guy. If I never make it to Spokane again other than make it to the airport, I'm OK with that. That has a bearing on who I am today and how I got into this business.

Why did you pick geography as your major at the University of Wisconsin?

I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I took college classes that were interesting to me. When it got to be my junior and senior years, I just needed a couple more courses here and there so I ended up graduating with a geography degree. I then found my way into land-use planning, and it's been good to me ever since.

How did you end up working for Kootenai County?

After college I bounced around with jobs from a motorcycle shop to an oil change business. I came out to Idaho to visit a relative while I was in college. I liked the area so I started looking for jobs. A job at Schuck's Auto Parts was my first job in Idaho. I started in the building department at the county processing permits in 1991. I helped with the comprehensive plan and worked my way through the ranks in the planning department. Back then there was a lot of turnover in the department of people moving on to make more money. I became the planning director in 2001 and the community development director when the commissioners consolidated the building and planning departments in 2004.

You left the county in 2006 after two years as the community development director. Why?

It was making me old. We were processing a record number of permits and the stress was high. I decided that I had enough and thought that I could make as good or better money and much less stress in the private sector. The private sector has been way more rewarding for me and I'm much happier doing what I'm doing. I work for a mix of private and public clients. I work (as a consultant) for the city of Hayden Lake and the city of Athol as well as a number of private development clients.

Meet Rand Wichman

Age: 50

College: Bachelors’ degree from the University of Wisconsin in geography

Family: Wife, Beth

Number of hours on average you work in a week: 40 to 45

Number of hours on average you sleep in a night: 8

Hobbies: Hunting, tinkering on my sports car, working outside at home, long-distance shooting

Favorite spectator sport: Football (Green Bay Packers)

Favorite type of music: Country

Quality you admire most in a person: Integrity

Best advice you ever received: Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence

Historical figure you most admire: Thomas Jefferson

Any one person who most influenced your life and why: My dad, Ron. He was very creative and self-sufficient. If something needed fixed, he’d fix it. He instilled in me that ability of self-sufficiency. It’s up to you to make your way.