The state Department of Ecology says Spokane can’t build the Lincoln Street bridge because it violates the city’s own shoreline protection plan.
The department rejected the city’s application for a shoreline permit needed to build the bridge over the Spokane River gorge downtown.
“This was the only decision we could make,” Tony Grover, Ecology’s regional director, said Friday. “To make any other decision would be totally against the locally established shoreline master plan.”
The city’s plan says any activity that “will tend to lessen or obliterate in part the falls and rapid areas” is forbidden.
“The north bank end of (the bridge) goes very close to the Falls itself and would cast a shadow most of the year,” Grover said.
Stunned city officials said they could say little about the decision until the state completes its written findings, which should be done next week.
“We honestly don’t know what we’ll do until we know specifically what they’ve said,” City Manager Bill Pupo said.
“I have a lot of questions” about the decision, Councilwoman Phyllis Holmes said.
At least one council member was thrilled.
“It looks like (Ecology) just saved the city about $40 million,” said Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers.
The decision runs contrary to a ruling last fall from the city’s hearing examiner, who approved the permit using the same shorelines plan.
“While there may be some shadows cast during certain times of the year, there will be no physical obstructions to the view of the Falls,” Hearing Examiner Greg Smith wrote in October.
The Ecology Department’s decision overrules Smith, leaving the city with three options: Withdraw the permit application and walk away from the project; appeal to the state shorelines hearings board, which is appointed by the governor; or change the shoreline master plan, which could take several years.
Changing the plan isn’t easy. It would involve hours of public hearings and several layers of approval, including a state review, Grover said.
A 1991 attempt at rewriting the plan took five years and still sits in the city legal department, stalled by planning for the Growth Management Act, said Steve Haynes of the city’s planning department. The act requires the plan be eventually rewritten.
If the Lincoln Street bridge isn’t built, the Post Street Bridge would have to be replaced. And that could lead to the same shorelines permit problem, said Councilwoman Roberta Greene.
“I have no idea what we’ll do at this point,” said Councilman Jeff Colliton, noting the state’s decision is the second major setback to the $36 million project in less than two months.
The bridge’s future began looking shaky last month when several council members questioned whether the city could afford to build it.
They asked Pupo to come up with a financial plan that details how the city can pay for the Lincoln Street bridge and surrounding road and bridge projects, including repairs to the Monroe Street Bridge.
Council members originally wanted the plan by February. Then they asked for a complete study of the Monroe Street Bridge, which won’t be done until late spring.
The council decided last month that no more money would be spent on the Lincoln Street project after the $3.2 million bridge design is completed in February.
So far, the city has spent about $9 million on the project, including $2.8 million to buy the former Salty’s restaurant site on the northern edge of the bridge route.
Council members last month agreed to buy Steve and Leslie Ronald’s property just north of the downtown library for $1.9 million. Buying the land was a condition of settling a lawsuit aimed at stopping the bridge.
The city could sell the restaurant if the bridge project is abandoned, but the charter forbids selling land acquired as park property. The Parks Department kicked in money for the Ronalds’ land.
The bridge proposal calls for a four-lane, one-way bridge to align with Lincoln Street, carrying northbound traffic from downtown to Sinto Avenue. Eventually, the Monroe Street Bridge would be one-way southbound.
Controversy has dogged the project since it first was discussed back in the 1970s.
Proponents say the bridge is needed to ease traffic congestion and improve air quality. Opponents say the bridge will do more harm than good by destroying views of the lower falls.
The Ecology Department’s Grover said the department took the controversy into consideration when assigning the project to an environmental specialist for review.
“We found a person with a lot of expertise but who didn’t care about the outcome,” Grover said.
All shoreline permit decisions are reviewed by Ecology officials in Olympia and the attorney general’s office, which both agreed with the regional office’s ruling, Grover said.