Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

At Least No One Has Died ... Yet

CDA police looking for man who killed kitten, assaulted roommate. With that headline and her May 22, 2006, website story, KXLY television news reporter Annie Roach brings to light an issue Coeur d'Alene Mayor Sandi Bloem and the City Council would rather have remain in the shadows: Did the City's failure to enforce its residential zoning ordinances facilitate the violence at the Lord's House last weekend?

For over two years Coeur d'Alene residents have periodically appeared before the Mayor and City Council requesting, pleading really, for enforcement of zoning ordinances. Specifically, residents have sought enforcement of ordinances to regulate the operation of commercial transient housing in residential zones. The ordinances have been in place, but the City has failed to keep them up to date and enforce them.

Officially, the expression of community concern began when several citizens appeared at the May 18, 2004, Coeur d'Alene City Council Meeting to discuss the operation of a transitional home in a residential zone on Belleville Drive. The Council's response was to refer the matter to the City's General Services Committee and to encourage residents to write letters to their elected state representatives.

A few weeks later, the City Attorney and General Services Committee informed residents that the City's zoning ordinance was unenforceable. The City directed the City Attorney to correct the ordinance defects. (NOTE: As a result of persuasive evidence discovered by neighborhood residents in June 2004, the Idaho Department of Correction chose to remove its clients from the transitional homes operated by the landlord of the Belleville Drive residence.)

After Belleville Drive was resolved, the Mayor and City Council slipped back into a blissful indifference that they could enjoy for only a few months.

In March 2005 residents on East Hastings Avenue noticed suspicious activity at 724 Hastings. The neighbors investigated and determined the house, one of three operating under the name the "Lord's House," was being used as a boarding house for transient residents, an illegal use in that residential zone without a special use permit. The neighbors also learned the Lord's House residences were managed by Jack Landreth.

Concerned by overwhelming evidence that the house at 724 Hastings was being used contrary to city ordinances and that the Coeur d'Alene Police Department seemed unaware of the activities surrounding the Lord's House, neighbors spoke up at the April 19, 2005, Coeur d'Alene City Council meeting. Once again, the Mayor and City Council directed the General Services Committee to look into the matter. The General Services Committee leaped into inaction.

Finally on November 1, 2005, the Coeur d'Alene City Council passed Ordinance Number 3238. That ordinance appeared to correct the deficiencies that residents had first complained about 18 months earlier in May 2004. Alas, appearances are deceiving.

Following passage of Ordinance 3238 on November 1, 2005, the City contacted the Lord's House manager Jack Landreth and offered to help him bring the three Lord's House operations into compliance. That was fine with the neighbors, or at least it would have been if the City had established and enforced a timeline for compliance. It didn't, and to all outward appearances the Lord's House continued to operate unchanged.

Becoming increasingly concerned about the City's neglect of its duty to enforce its codes, former City planning commissioner Susan Snedaker raised the issue again at the February 7, 2006, Coeur d'Alene City Council meeting. After Snedaker finished, Jack Landreth spoke. Significantly, he emphasized the agreement that all Lord's House residents must abide by. Two of the conditions he highlighted: Zero tolerance for use of alcohol and agreement to common courtesy and respect for fellow residents. (Readers will note the KXLY story reports the accused resident, Tracy Swing, had been drinking and has a history of violence on multiple occasions against other residents. Swing's conduct would appear to be at odds with the agreement touted by Landreth at the February 7 Council meeting, yet Swing was allowed to remain a resident of the Lord's House on 15th Street.)

Then on February 21, 2006, Jack Landreth again returned to address the City Council meeting. At that meeting, City Attorney Mike Gridley noted he had been working with Landreth, and they had reviewed existing codes.

Still, residents on Hastings saw no evidence of enforcement action on the City's part. So, on April 18, 2006, Susan Snedaker and Bill McCrory once again stood up at the Coeur d'Alene City Council meeting to ask when the City intended to start enforcing the supposedly corrected zoning ordinance to bring the Lord's House and other similar businesses into compliance. City Attorney Mike Gridley indicated the procedures Landreth would be required to follow to bring the Lord's House businesses into compliance, however he could not provide a precise timetable. (NOTE: Both Susan Snedaker and Bill McCrory dispute the characterization of their comments in the linked online minutes. Further, the comments of City Attorney Mike Gridley were significantly underreported in those minutes. Persons interested in hearing the comments verbatim and in context should contact City Clerk Susan Weathers and arrange to listen to the audio recording of that portion of the Council meeting.)

It is interesting that at many of the Council meetings and General Services Committee meetings, Councilmembers commented that passing and enforcing ordinances takes time.

Really? Let's look at a the enforcement timeline for an earlier incident.

In early April 2003 a bikini bar, the Torch Lounge, opened in Coeur d'Alene. On April 12, 2003, fewer than two weeks after the Torch Lounge opened, the Coeur d'Alene Police Department made a well-publicized visit to the Torch Lounge and threatened to cite the business if it didn't remove (yes, that's right...remove) dark window shades that made it difficult to see inside from the sidewalk. In the April 13, 2003, Coeur d'Alene Press, City Attorney Mike Gridley said, "It's a weird law, because it only applies to places that sell beer. It's opening a can of worms." The "weird law" was city code 5.08.120: CLEAR VIEW INTO PLACE OF BUSINESS, a law so old and outdated the City Attorney was unable to determine when it had been passed.

The contrast in the City's code enforcement policy is obvious: If the City wants to enforce an obscure ordinance quickly for political benefit, it can and will. If it doesn't want to enforce an ordinance to protect neighborhood citizens, it won't.

It's reasonable for Coeur d'Alene residents to wonder how much the City's failure to enforce its zoning ordinances, even after numerous complaints from its citizens, contributed to the incident at the Lord's House on May 21, 2006. The only good news for the Mayor and City Council is that at least no one has died . . . yet . . . as a result of their failure to enforce the city's zoning ordinances.


Blogger Bay Views said...

Do I smell a lawsuit in our future? I can't remember the legal term, but it is an order by the court for public officials to enforce the law. Perhaps you can remind me of that term. I once used it many years ago.

11:19 PM, May 24, 2006  
Blogger Bill McCrory said...


You're probably thinking of mandamus or writ of mandamus.

In my opinion the term nonfeasance more accurately describes our Mayor and City Council's conduct.

No lawsuit from me. But if I were the victim of the beating Saturday night, I'd sure be talking with an attorney about the property owner's and manager's duty to enforce the agreement the Lord's House residents supposedly signed. I might also ask that attorney if the City, having been made aware of the rooming houses being operated in violation of city codes, had any liability. By the way, I believe the City of Coeur d'Alene is self-insured, so any payout would come from the City, not an insurance carrier.

7:42 AM, May 25, 2006  

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