Bill to let counties scrap comprehensive plans heads to House

February 22, 2019
Bryan Zollinger

BOISE — A bill to let Idaho counties opt out of having a comprehensive plan or land use code made it through its committee hearing Wednesday.

After more than an hour of testimony, the House Local Government Committee voted 9-4 to send the bill to the House to be amended. A motion to hold the bill in committee failed 7-6 before that.

All three Democrats on the committee voted in favor of holding the bill and against sending it to the House. Three Republicans joined them to vote for holding the bill, although two then switched their votes to support sending it to the House’s amending order.

Idaho’s Land Use Planning Act, which passed in 1975, says “every city and county shall” exercise the planning powers it contains. The bill being sponsored by Rep. John Green, R-Post Falls, would strike the word county in that sentence and add a line saying counties “may” exercise those land use planning powers, giving them the option of not doing so.

Green said counties that still want to engage in more extensive planning could do so, and that the bill wouldn’t end county commissioners’ responsibility to oversee land use. If they handle it poorly, Green said, they’ll get voted out.

“Land use issues generate a lot of passion with constituents,” he said. “They take them seriously.”

Many city officials oppose the bill, as does the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. Jerry Mason, lawyer for the Association of Idaho Cities, told the committee getting rid of a comprehensive plan in a county would hurt cities, which annex unincorporated areas as they expand. And, he said, if a county were to scrap its comprehensive plan, it would be “a Herculean task” to bring it back later if the need were to arise.

“It protects taxpayers,” he said of the current law. “It protects landowners. It protects essential public responsibilities.”

Leon Letson, president of the Idaho chapter of the American Planning Association, said rapid, unplanned growth could lead to problems such as congested roads and not enough schools or police protection.

“From our perspective, failing to plan for our county lands is planning to fail,” he said.

Supporters of the proposal included Idaho Freedom Foundation Vice President Fred Birnbaum and Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird. Birnbaum said that while most of Idaho’s bigger counties would likely continue to draft comprehensive plans, it doesn’t make sense to force small counties that don’t see the need to do it.

“It asks counties that are low in population or depopulating to do something for which there might not be the requisite benefit,” he said. “We’re making it a mandate.”

Giddings said she saw the bill as being about local control.

“What is good for Boise is not necessarily good for Riggins, and what is good for Idaho Falls is not necessarily good for Grangeville,” she said.

Giddings said in Idaho County, which is part of her district, voters rejected a planning effort in a referendum and voted out two county commissioners who had backed it.

“The people strongly voiced their opinion that they do not want this in Idaho County,” she said.

Rep. Jarom Wagoner, who works as a planner for the city of Caldwell and was the only Republican to vote against sending the bill to the full House’s amending order, said getting rid of county comprehensive plans could hurt cities.

“As a city, you plan for your future,” Wagoner said. “That’s what those impact areas are for. Cities need to grow and they’re supposed to grow. … Cities need to have a degree of some certainty to know what’s planned for those areas.”

Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls, who made the motion to send it to the amending order, said he had spoken to Bonneville County commissioners about it and that, while they wouldn’t change anything they’re doing, the bill could help smaller counties.

“In concept, I think this is a great concept,” he said. “The county commissioners I’ve spoken with think it increases flexibility.”