The Jefferson County Planning and Zoning commission held their regular meeting April 1 in the commissioner’s meeting room in the County Annex. The meeting included another hearing on the Subdivision Ordinance and revisions the commission was suggesting.

Based on comments received at a hearing held by the Jefferson County Commissioners March 1, revisions focused on water and septic requirements as well as traffic concerns.

Erik Stout with the Planning and Zoning office went over the proposed changes, starting with the change that subdivisions whose main electric or gas lines were not installed as of Dec. 22, 2020, consist of ten or more lots, or are projected to generate more than 2,500 gallons of backwaste or wastewater per day shall be connected to either a central septic system or a municipal wastewater treatment system.

This requirement would remain unless a nutrient pathogen study or other performance based study proves that effluent from the subdivision will not adversely impact water.

The next proposed change states that other studies must be completed by an Idaho state licensed professional with experience in subsurface evaluations, making community waste treatment systems a requirement when a proposed subdivision is within 1,320 feet of another subdivision of ten or more lots, with the exception of study results that prove the safety of water.

In regards to traffic concerns, one proposed addition is the statement that the county reserves the right to require a traffic study if it’s deemed necessary.

Following Stout’s explanation of proposed changes, the floor was open for testimony in favor of, neutral, or against the proposals.

Those in favor spoke with Steve Stringham going first and after asking that they make these meetings available on Zoom in the future, thanked the commission for the time they’ve spent on the ordinance and the Comprehensive Plan.

Stringham stated that he believes the revisions still fit well with the Comprehensive Plan and that this is focusing more on looking at the long term plan of the county as opposed to risking long term problems for a short term gain.

“It goes back to relying on science,” Stringham said. “I appreciate that you’re listening to the community and looking at growth in a planned, organized fashion.”

Luke Hicks followed and said that he also applauded the commission and Planning and Zoning staff with the proposed changes, although he was a fan of the earlier version of the ordinance. He stated that he likes that studies would need to be done by professionals.

Changes he suggested included placing a date on the Area of Impact agreement statement as that could change in the future, as well as adding ‘waters of the United States” under protection in 110-92 ©.

Those signed up as neutral spoke next, starting with the reading of a letter from Ty Belnap.

Belnap wrote that although nutrient pathogen studies were a good thing to consider, he said they must be performed by designated standards to assure both compliance and rigor.

He also gave recommendations that subdivision lots sizes must comply with Zoning Ordinance, Zoning Ordinance needs to be amended, allowing for less than one acre lots within a city Area of Impact, that the county may only allow a lot to be less than one acre if the subdivision is with an AOI, completes a comprehensive NPS evaluation, and is engineered with the requirement to hook onto city services when those become available. Belnap also recommended adopting the Teton County Idaho Nutrient Pathogen Evaluation.

Belnap’s letter continued with statements and recommendations on domestic water and traffic management and the full letter can be requested by the Planning and Zoning office.

Nancy Hansen spoke next and also requested that these meetings be made available on Zoom as she had many neighbors that wanted to participate but were unable to attend in person. She then said that she was in favor of the community requirements for ten or more lots but that the way they addressed transportation concerns was too vague in how or which developments will be required to complete a traffic study. She also felt that proper road needs should be covered by the developers.

“This should be on the developers,” she said. “This is their thing. The widening of the roads, lights, drains, etc. shouldn’t fall on the existing residents. Developers aren’t looking at the long-term.”

Developer Jim Bernard also spoke from a neutral standpoint and first thanked the commission for opening the ordinance back up. He said that there are things he is in favor of and things he still wanted to see changed but he first asked about the developments that fall under the requirement that those “whose main electric or gas lines were not installed as of Dec. 22, 2020, consist of ten or more lots, or are projected to generate more than 2,500 gallons of backwaste or wastewater per day shall be connected to either a central septic system or a municipal wastewater treatment system.”

Bernard stated that there may be some legality issues if some developments that were possibly in a later phase of development and had been previously approved were made to go back in and meet this requirement. Bernard did say that he was in favor of the traffic study requirement but that there are a few more changes he would like.

Mark Johnson was the first to speak against the proposed changes. Johnson said he was the owner of one of the largest producers of septic tanks and that he’s in close contact with the Department of Environmental Quality in his line of work.

“I have yet to hear one thing that suggests there’s pollution from properly installed septic tanks,” Johnson said. “I’ve been in this 25 years now and I’m not aware of anything suggesting this.”

Johnson grew passionate in his speech as he stated that the commissioners were merely speculating, his business was being reflected on by those speculations and that they were making changes and he didn’t see why.

Chairman Warren Albertson responded and said that they were changing things because of changes to the concentration of people in the county.

Johnson responded and said that there were no studies that say these things were happening and Albertson said that no taxpayer wants to be in charge of a multi-million or even multi-billion dollar clean up with contamination, to which Johnson responded that maybe they do and that the commissioners didn’t know that.

Johnson concluded his statements before Jed Denning took to the mic to make his comments. Denning, a water well contractor, said that he knows the area and has personally drilled over 2,000 wells.

“We often are the first ones that get called when there’s contamination,” Denning said.

According to Denning, there are no incidents of large-scale contamination in Jefferson County and that they have ways to treat any contamination. He said that the earth is amazing at cleaning groundwater and that the water system here rejuvenates itself.

Denning has advocated in the past against the requirements for wells in the Subdivision Ordinance and he said that while there are things he is in favor of, he would like to see some more changes as well.

“A house with a well is just like a straw in the ocean,” Denning said.

Brad Wells signed up against the proposal but then changed his stance to neutral when he went up to speak. Wells said that he agrees with many of the points that had been made and that one of the things that really draws people into the county is being able to have their one acre lot where there’s not so much that feel of being in a city.

“As a builder, you have to have a septic permit,” Wells said. “Some of the included items will make it so that in the future, we’ll be looking at higher density living that people won’t want. I see the good of some things but I think other things need change.”

The hearing then closed and commission member Heath Lewis thanked everyone that came to give comments although they would have preferred to receive them when they began working on this two years ago.

The commission members discussed some of the points that had been made and a statement was made that they would support the adding of “waters of the United States” when it came to protection of resources.

Lewis stated that while there may not be proof of contamination, they would rather not wait until there was proof of contamination to address concerns.

Commission member Adam Hall said that he sees both sides of not wanting the community requirements versus wanting individual units but that having the option to do a study to avoid that requirement was a happy medium.

Michael Clark stated that the requirements and guidelines were less about making sure the county wasn’t responsible for any future mishaps but that it was more about making it a science-based approach as well as listening to the public at large.

“There is a big concern [on protecting water],” Clark said. “Is it unfounded? I don’t know. But if there’s a concern, there’s a reason.”

The conversation carried on and there was a question on if the county was legally able to require a subdivision to go back and add community water and septic systems.

County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Taylor said that in the state of Idaho, the police powers of the state to protect water trumps everything else.

“Protecting water is more important than someone’s pocketbook,” Taylor said.

Taylor continued, saying that the board was being generous to make an exception when it came to water safety for those that met the Dec. 22, 2020 deadline as they could essentially make all subdivisions follow the new requirement.

“Frankly, you don’t have to give anyone a pass,” Taylor said.

Commission members asked if the number of developments was really that high that this should be a problem anyway and Stout said they were in the process of gathering up information on all the subdivisions currently in progress in the county.

Commissioners came to a point where they were unsure of whether to continue modifying that night or to meet again the following week to confirm the language of the recommendations they would be making to county commissioners.

“And then they’ll do whatever they want anyway, right,” one commissioner joked.

The commission ultimately moved to close the hearing and create a work meeting to be sure of the language before making their recommendations with the understanding that it would be presented in time for commissioners to hold their own hearing before the moratorium deadline.