Monday, April 15, 2024

BOCC approves new overlay district

Local Editor | March 29, 2024 1:00 AM

WALLACE — Shoshone County commissioners voted this month to create a mountain overlay district for the areas surrounding Wallace.

A mountain overlay district is a zoning district that blankets previously established zoning districts and enforces additional restrictions and standards for properties within its boundaries. Mountain overlay districts are regularly used in areas with special features, including areas and places such as historic buildings and districts, as well as wetlands, mountainsides and waterfronts.

The new mountain overlay district targets the unincorporated hillsides surrounding the community of Wallace and any that are “visible from and approaching the city boundaries of Wallace.” Single-family dwellings are permitted but are restricted to one per every 50 acres to maintain the desired base density.

Permits will be required for any site alterations. Permit applications must include plans for all proposed buildings, structures, hillside roads and any associated development or construction.

Any development within the district will be subject to a thorough evaluation by the county’s planning and zoning administrator, who will also have the authority to disapprove any application that doesn’t meet the standards outlined. 

“I generally oppose strict, burdensome rules like these for private property owners,” Commissioner Dave Dose said. “But in this case, I was challenged and swayed by the evidence presented in the hearing process to change my thinking for the good of the greater public. I was convinced through the process that the majority of citizens in Wallace wanted these rules in place to protect their historical setting and their environment."

Many Wallace residents have opposed any development on the surrounding hillsides.

The Wallace community has a deeply-rooted history of resisting ideas of expansion or mass development, famously challenging and subsequently beating the federal government in the 1970s and '80s when Harry Magnuson and a core group of citizens successfully prevented the agencies from demolishing a large swath of buildings as Interstate 90 was being constructed.

More than 400 letters were reportedly submitted in support of the mountain overlay district, compared to 11 letters that opposed it.

Many critics of the district said added regulation would violate the property owner’s rights, but that argument was countered by many who acknowledged that all property owners are subject to the rules and regulations of the county and state where they exist.

Commissioners Dose and Tracy Casady spoke of the potential environmental consequences of development on these steeper and more rugged hillsides and how keeping them intact would help maintain the picturesque nature of the county.

“As we see our county continue to grow, it is necessary to preserve the natural beauty that has attracted people to move here,” Casady said. “Every time I drive into Kootenai (County) and see constant construction, excavating the land and removing more trees around the lake and throughout the county for construction, it makes me think of what is happening to the natural environment and habitat. Shoshone County must try to stay ahead of the game and adopt ordinances that will help preserve what we have as the population grows."

The specificity of the MOD highlights how such a tool can be a benefit to a county that has topography as diverse as Shoshone County, whereas Wallace sits at the bottom of a veritable bowl, other communities with different features can enact their own overlay districts. This can be done at the city level, or cities can follow the same route that Wallace did and work with the county to develop them for the surrounding unincorporated areas.

Amy Lynn, a Wallace resident, school board trustee and proponent of the new code, said she believes the overlay district is a positive for Wallace. 

“It's a win for our community because the beauty and mountain setting that brings people from all over the world to Wallace will be developed in the least damaging way possible,” Lynn said. “It's a win for the community because existing homeowners can rest assured that any development on the steep slopes above them will be done in such a way that they don't have to worry about slope erosion. It's a win for our community because it shows that the aesthetics of an old mining town matter to this community. That the mountains are part of our identity. It's a win for our community because it shows that small towns that work together can save the very thing that makes them unique and loved.”