Many developers and environmentalists thought they had Kate McCaslin pegged even before she was elected a Spokane County commissioner in 1996.
She’d be pro-growth to the point of handing over the county to builders, environmentalists warned.
She’d mute Commissioner John Roskelley’s environmental leanings and be a more consistent ally of fellow commissioner and property rights advocate Phil Harris, developers hoped.
Developers and builders were her biggest campaign contributors, after all, and she came from a construction background. She had a political pedigree that included work on many conservative causes.
The predictions came easily. Most were wrong.
Perhaps the prognosticators didn’t pay enough attention in 1996.
“What I tried to say in every campaign speech is we need balance” between growth and the environment, said McCaslin, who recently completed her first year in office. “I said that to developers. I said that to everyone, and I felt like that wasn’t believed.
“So here was the development community thinking, ‘We have her in our pocket’ or ‘She’s a patsy.’ … For some of them, I’m sure I’m a huge disappointment.”
Last April, a letter in The Spokesman-Review accused McCaslin of being an environmentalist, drawing laughter from all quarters. But environmentalists concede it was no less accurate than the pre-election predictions that she would “gut” growth management planning.
“I don’t think we knew her that well,” neighborhood activist Bart Haggin said. “She seemed to get so much (money) from builders and developers, it kind of put us off. In reality, she’s listened well and within the confines of fiscal responsibility, she’s quite sensitive to conservationists’ issues.”
“She’s kind of half Phil, half Roskelley,” one high-level county employee said.
Most developers contacted for this story wouldn’t say anything on the record. Some said she sides with Roskelley far too often.
“Every (builder) I talked to agreed: We were extremely disappointed with the very first major action she took in office,” said Suzanne Knapp of the Spokane Homebuilders Association.
That action was to set boundaries placing much of the county off-limits to urban development. The three commissioners voted unanimously on the boundaries, which were required under state law.
Conservationists didn’t get all the restrictions they wanted in the urban growth boundaries. But they were more pleased than developers, 10 of whom successfully appealed to a state oversight panel, saying commissioners put too much land off-limits.
The decision means the boundaries likely will be expanded unless the county can better justify the commissioners’ decision. Knapp said McCaslin promised during the election to listen to builders about the boundaries. They feel she broke that promise.
As part of her research for urban growth boundaries, McCaslin flew over North Side neighborhoods, and later said she was stunned by the sprawl. There would be less development along the Little Spokane River and on Five Mile Prairie if she had been commissioner when growth boomed in those areas, she said recently.
These days, people from those neighborhoods plead with commissioners to do something about flooding, traffic congestion and other problems. County engineers are looking for solutions. In the meantime, McCaslin views other development proposals with caution, lest the problems repeat themselves.
McCaslin “is very concerned about the impact development has on the people who must live with it,” Roskelley said.
So concerned, some developers say, that she’s stepping on their rights to build on land that’s already subdivided.
Recently, she questioned why the county would take over a neighborhood flood-control system when developer Bob Guthrie was offering only a one-year guarantee it wouldn’t fail. The neighborhood has flooded the last two years, and some downstream residents blame Guthrie’s development, Ashton Heights, which is served by the flood-control system.
A year was the best guarantee most developers would offer, so the county long ago stopped asking for more, a county planner replied.
McCaslin was incredulous. It’s irrelevant whether developers agree, as long as county requirements are reasonable, she said.
“They give us an extended warranty or they don’t develop.”
Guthrie, whose plans to expand Ashton Heights are stalled until the county approves the storm system, said county engineers repeatedly have approved the system; commissioners should do the same, he said, adding they probably would if McCaslin would ease up.
Knapp sees more and more developers leaving Spokane County for Idaho. Her association counted on McCaslin to slow that trend.
“We were hopeful that she would be aware that home construction is one of the biggest providers of economic growth,” she said. “So far, that’s not what we’ve seen.”
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