by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & D & lt;/span & espite a strongly worded letter of objection from three mayors, the Kootenai County Commissioners are likely to approve a conditional-use permit today (June 14) allowing a fast-growing church to create a multi-building, 116-acre campus over the Rathdrum Prairie aquifer -- without sewers.

The commissioners granted preliminary approval to Real Life Ministries, by a 2-1 vote, on May 3 and the same tally is expected for the final conditional-use permit approval, which was delayed a week to clarify restrictions on the project.

Health district regulations only allow septic systems to handle 70 people, but Real Life Ministries is seeking to construct a sanctuary that could eventually hold as many as 7,000 worshippers; it is designed to accommodate 3,500 initially. The development also calls for ball fields, gymnasium, indoor pool, outdoor lake, office buildings and retail space.

The mayors of three surrounding cities - Post Falls, Hayden and Rathdrum - wrote a sharp letter to the county saying approval of the project flies in the face of a joint agreement not to allow large development over the aquifer until a wastewater management study is completed.

"I agree with the mayors that we should discourage any building out there," County Commissioner Todd Tondee says. But, he adds, the joint agreement also says large developments should be held off "unless there is an express finding that the development will not inhibit sewer to the property or the surrounding properties - that's the part everybody's leaving out."

Real Life Ministries will need sewer service before it can be fully occupied, Tondee says, which will help speed sewer extension across the Prairie. This is unlike the Copper Basin subdivision proposal, denied earlier this year by the county, which was designed to have its own sewage treatment plant, "which would inhibit the advancement of sewer because there would be no benefit to connect to municipal sewer," Tondee says.

Also, Tondee says, Real Life Ministries agreed to allow public access to the complex of ball fields and about 100 acres of walking trails that are slated to be part of their development. "I think there will be a great public benefit," Tondee says.

Not everybody sees it that way, Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke says the go-ahead for this project is wrong. "The issue is: We have assets in the region we need to protect," Mielke says. "On the Washington side of the line, we have devised a very aggressive plan to eliminate septic systems in the aquifer protection area, and it's not been easy."

In their letter, Post Falls Mayor Clay Larkin, Rathdrum Mayor Brian Steele and Hayden Mayor Ron McIntire write that the commissioners' caveat that Real Life Ministries would "connect to sewers when they become available," is like promising to "eat dinner when it is brought to us."

"Wastewater systems don't come to lands: they are brought to lands," by developers and local governments, the letter continues. Sewer extension that far out into the unincorporated Prairie is not on the horizon, Larkin says.

Larkin sees no root difference between the Real Life Ministries and Copper Basin proposals. For Larkin, the issue is the agreement - codified as a county ordinance in 2005 - that Post Falls, Hayden, Rathdrum and the county would not allow large development on the Rathdrum Prairie until the wastewater plan was finished. The $300,000 study is expected this fall, as is the county's updated master sewer plan, says Kootenai County long-ranger planner Cheri Howell.

North Idaho's Panhandle Health District regulates septic systems and the Real Life Ministries proposal faces restrictions that may preclude full occupation of the site. Currently Panhandle Health limits one residential septic system over the aquifer to every five acres, meaning Real Life Ministries gets the equivalent of 23 septic systems on its 116 acres. Further, the health district presumes each residential septic system serves 2.7 people per day. Rounding up, Real Life Ministries would have septic to handle 70 people per day or about 500 a week - far short of its expected 3,500 worshippers for the first phase of construction.

Tondee and Kootenai County planner Mark Mussman, who handled the Real Life Ministries' proposal, say the church must perform a nutrient/pathogen study as one of their permit conditions. The study will determine precisely how much septic flow the land can handle and is likely to reduce the equivalent systems from 23 to 10, Tondee says. Facing these limitations, officials from the church have indicated they will hold worship services in their current sanctuary until the new property has sewer, Tondee says.

"I fight this water thing every day of the week -- it's all inter-related," Larkin says. "We just turned down a 400-acre development proposal recently and now we are being sued. We all agreed to hold large projects in abeyance until a study is done."

Several issues are bound together. First there is safeguarding the aquifer, the sole drinking water source for an estimated 500,000 people. Soils above the aquifer are porous and septic systems may not do a good job of filtering out phosphorus or other contaminants identified in federal water regulations.

Sewers do not bring automatic relief as North Idaho sewage treatment plants have been overwhelmed by recent growth and teeter on the edge of exceeding maximum effluent releases into the Spokane River. Idaho, Washington and tribal governments are all wrestling with how flows in the river should be regulated to meet a variety of needs.

So-called land application, the use of treated effluent as irrigation water, is also strictly monitored and cannot leave the root zone of crops over the aquifer. Excess must be stored in holding ponds.

Mussman says the Real Life Ministries acreage is likely to be at or close to the vanishing point where the once-bucolic Rathdrum Prairie will be submerged by the cities of Hayden, Rathdrum and Post Falls.

Conceding the 116 acres is not a public park, it will at least be a large open chunk, Mussman says. "We would like to have a transition instead of a sign saying 'Thanks for visiting Post Falls/Welcome to Rathdrum.'"

Tondee agrees the benefits outweigh concerns. "I have spent some time with Mayor Larkin ... he has valid concerns. Any new development over the Prairie on septic is not in best interest of the aquifer ... It's just that with our laws and zoning ordinances we have to go by the rules. Our decision made the express finding that this would not inhibit sewers - that's the difference between Copper Basin and Real Life Ministries."

Larkin is not mollified. "If we lose, for whatever reason, either the quality or the quantity of our aquifer -- everybody is done," he says.

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