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Preserving the prairie: County personnel express need for action

by MADISON HARDY
Staff Writer | December 15, 2021 1:06 AM

Last of three parts

County officials are considering a new approach to preserving the Rathdrum Prairie as regional growth threatens the formerly open landscape.

Planning and Zoning Commissioner Wes Hanson pitched his idea on how to preserve the prairie to the board of commissioners last week.

His proposal outlined three requests:

• Appoint a small citizen committee to investigate establishing a public land acquisition program through a sub-area Recreation District

• Appoint county staff to work with the citizen committee

• Form a local nonprofit group to work with the county to raise money to buy land

The Press covered Hanson's request on Sunday.

Regional leaders have investigated prairie preservation measures for decades. Kootenai County Community Development Director David Callahan recently discovered three boxes of files documenting several open space studies from the turn of the century.

However, regional leaders did not implement preservation measures listed in the studies due to a lack of community support, funding and ability.

The Press highlighted parts of these studies on Tuesday.

But as prairie land continues to be developed, county personnel expressed a need for action during the meeting with Hanson last week.

TODAY

In early 2021, Coeur d'Alene City Council member Kiki Miller and Community Planning Director Hilary Anderson spearheaded the Regional Housing and Growth Issues Partnership. Soon after forming, the partnership sent out a citizens survey to gauge what residents wanted to see.

The top priority based on 2,657 respondents was creating a "coordinated planning effort between the county and cities to address a growth and open space on the prairie."

Miller told commissioners during the meeting that the time to implement any space-saving measures is fleeting.

"Time is very short because it's being sold because of its value," she said. "But there are people who are willing to step up, fund, coordinate, and do the grassroots work to get things pushed forward."

In April 2020, Community Development personnel published a white paper study on growth management that could be applied in Kootenai County. Within the report, planners stated the county has experienced an “unsustainable development pattern” caused in part by a 200% increase in minor subdivision applicants since 2016.

Some options the white paper, which can be found at KeepingKootenai.com, proposed to save open space were encouraging conservation easements, development right transfers and limiting urban growth to designated areas.

With the price of land ever-increasing, Community Development Director David Callahan pointed out that if the county had "pulled the trigger" and preserved open space years ago, the could have been a fraction of the price.

"It strikes me that this is really a now or never time," he said.

"The county and cities spent years trying to do an open space program, but they didn't have political or local buy-in in the beginning," Callahan said. "Fundamental to buy-in is getting people involved from the beginning, and that's the idea for the small committee."

Hanson said the committee would look for the community's needs, whether the district would focus on wildlife habitat, preservation of resources, or outdoor recreation net. He would hope that a "wide net" of opportunities would encourage people to feel they had "some skin in the game" and garner support.

Parks and Waterways Director Nick Snyder also told commissioners that he believes there would be considerable community support in the community to protect a portion of the Rathdrum Prairie.

"I think that would be a popular concept from developers, property owners, recreationists, and environmental groups," Synder said. "I think this is probably one of the most agreeable actions I think Kootenai County could take in preserving space on the Rathdrum Prairie."

If formed, both Callahan and Snyder offered to serve on the citizens committee. Miller also offered to provide any information the partnership has accumulated over the last year.

"I have talked to a couple of different landowners that are very large property owners, and they're very willing. In fact, two have told me that they want to see their property preserved and not developed," she said. "But, it's going to be sold because that's the next step in its evolution."

Commissioners voiced their support for Hanson's requests and asked Callahan to bring up the conversation at a community development meeting soon.

"I've been working on this for over a year," Commissioner Leslie Duncan said. "I have had over a dozen conversations with six businessmen who have money who want to see this preservation happen, but I didn't have a vehicle. I know where I want to go, and I think I found my car."

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The city limits of Post Falls, green, Coeur d'Alene, yellow and Hayden have grown dramatically over the last two decades. Photo courtesy Kootenai County Community Development Director David Callahan.

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The number of building permits issued by Kootenai County has increased by nearly 2,000 in the last decade. Photo courtesy Kootenai County Community Development Director David Callahan.

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Photo courtesy Kootenai County Community Development Director David Callahan.

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The Kootenai County Department of Community Development approved 1,920 acres of subdivisions lots in 2020. Photo courtesy David Callahan.