Quick: Name a member of the Spokane County Planning Commission.
That question may be getting easier to answer.
Stuck behind a gavel until 1996, the seven-member panel decided whether this chunk of land could be subdivided, or that farm should become a strip mall. About the only people who could name a board member were those who were angered by a planning decision.
Two years ago, county commissioners appointed an attorney to make decisions about subdivisions, zoning changes and similar matters. Freed of its quasi-judicial role, the planning commission is taking on a role described as “pro-active” by one county planner.
Commission members are heading up the effort to update the county’s comprehensive land-use plan, as required under the state’s Growth Management Act. Most observers say the board is well-suited to the task, which requires each member to spend hundreds of hours in dozens of meetings.
There is no such agreement that the board is acting properly by meeting with neighborhood associations to discuss concerns over growth and development.
Late last year, the commission met with Five Mile Prairie residents to discuss development-related issues like flooding and roads. Next month, it will do the same with people from Moran Prairie, some of whom have urged the county to ban all new construction until water collection systems are built to prevent flooding.
Planning commission members say they’re soaking up the neighbors’ concerns and will make recommendations to county commissioners.
“By golly, something has to be done because there is a problem out there,” said commission member Mike Schrader.
“Our role (is) to be the folks who go between the elected officials and the people of the county,” said commission member Tom Hargreaves.
Critics say the planning commission is supposed to wait for orders from above. County commissioners didn’t ask them to get involved with either the Five Mile or Moran neighborhoods; in fact, county Commissioner Phil Harris said he didn’t even know about the upcoming meeting with Moran residents.
“I’m not sure that’s proper,” said Harris, a former planning commission member.
Harris noted that county staff already is working on ways to solve the flooding in Moran Prairie. Some neighbors complain that work is going too slowly.
Planning commission member Clyde Haase worries that the meetings give neighbors false hope. The commission can take no action other than make recommendations.
And Suzanne Knapp, who represents the Spokane Home Builders Association, said the neighborhood meetings smack of favoritism, since they were prompted by homeowners groups that often are at odds with builders.
“If a developer asked (for) special consideration, they’d be laughed out of the room. Neighborhoods should be treated the same way,” said Knapp.
County attorney Jim Emacio noted this isn’t the first time the planning commission’s role has changed.
Originally, the board hired the county planning director and set policies and priorities for the planning department. Its authority was scaled back in the 1970s, and the board spent most of its time studying broad land-use issues and recommending policy changes to county commissioners.
It was only with the development boom in the 1980s that the commission became so busy ruling on individual projects that it abandoned nearly everything else, said Emacio.
“They have more time now” for work on the Growth Management Act and other policy issues, he said. “I think that’s great.” Staff writer Kathy Mulady contributed to this report.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: The commissioners Spokane County planning commission members are chairman Mike Britton, vice chairman Tom Hargreaves, Clyde Haase, Sandy McCauley, Curtis Messex, Donald Moore and Michael Schrader.