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Neighborhoods feel pinch of growing pains

Sun., Aug. 22, 2004

The sun seemed to bake the flies right out of the soil and on 34th Avenue on the South Hill, just inside the Spokane city limits, the heat seemed to drive the neighbors into anger.

Standing at 34th and Havana Street, red from four hours in the sun, neighbors who gathered to protest a nearby development bristled over property rights and unwanted neighbors, lifestyles damaged and government run amok. They passed a gallon pickle jar around, collecting money so they could hire an attorney.

In Spokane County and Spokane Valley, neighbors are feeling the pinch of densely populated developments grafted onto older communities. Residents say they had no idea county government rules allowed so many houses on so little land, at least not in their neighborhoods. Land laws encouraging more homes per acre regionwide were enacted by local governments two years ago to battle urban sprawl and protect undeveloped areas. Those laws are now being put to the test by the second-largest housing boom of the last 50 years, and neighbors directly affected are giving the policies a failing grade.

Homes, as many as six to an acre, are being built so close together that sometimes trees have to be removed. Spokane County, Spokane and Spokane Valley government standards for acceptable traffic flow are also two to three times what many neighbors consider OK.

“It’s the scorched-earth policy,” said Linde Hackett, a 34th Avenue neighbor enraged about plans to build 156 homes and 99 apartment units on 52 acres near Havana Street and 29th Avenue. There are wetlands on the property and a stand of trees will be logged to make room for the development, according to site plans submitted by the developer.

“They come in and cut down the vegetation. They can’t leave one tree standing in 52 acres. They just rape it and pave it over and the law allows this? There’s something wrong with a law that has so many citizens upset,” Hackett said.

The neighborhood and the developer, Lanzce Douglass, aren’t on speaking terms. Hackett said she and her neighbors recently received certified letters from Douglass warning them not to trespass on his property. Douglass did not respond to interview requests by The Spokesman-Review.

But neighborhood anger is often misdirected, said Mark Richard, government affairs director for the Spokane Homebuilders Association, or SHBA, of which Douglass is a member. Criticism should be directed at the government, which set up the building rules, Richard said. In Hackett’s case, that’s Spokane County.

“Neighbors want to take it out on the development community,” said Richard, who is running as a Republican for the Spokane County Commission District II seat. “The reality is, this stuff is not what the public wants. The public doesn’t want six homes an acre.”

Articles in SHBA’s newsletters offer more pointed criticisms of neighbors who balk at housing projects. In almost every reference, they are called anti-growth, emotionally charged or misinformed.

The confrontations between neighbors and developers are increasing as the area’s housing boom heats up. In three of the last four weeks, neighborhoods from Greenacres in Spokane Valley to Eagle Ridge in Spokane have drawn large crowds for discussions about thwarting high-density housing projects. And unlike years past, when neighbors stuck to their own backyard battles, residents are now testing the theory of strength in numbers by weighing in on each other’s development battles. Planning commission meetings for housing projects of 100 or more homes have become standing-room-only events.

From project to project, neighborhood protests are similar. Residents say they’re feeling betrayed by their local government because few residents recall being notified of the shift in government standards. County commissioners held three meetings before changing area land-use rules in 2002, which neighbors say wasn’t enough. Residents say they would have shown up in force if they knew what the meetings were about, which they say wasn’t made clear.

County officials, for their part, say ample notice was given and it’s now time to live by the rules.

“I read a letter to the editor that said there was no notice and that’s simply untrue,” county Commissioner Phil Harris said. “There was a letter saying there was a comp-plan hearing and this could affect your neighborhood and your property. You can’t get more specific than that. You can’t lasso people and take them to a meeting.”

Spokane County spent $45,000 mailing out 90,000 letters to local property owners in spring 2001. Nothing was etched in stone when the message went out, so the details were pretty basic – the where and when for three public meetings on the comprehensive plan, one in Mead, one in Spokane Valley, one in Airway Heights and a general warning that property owners could be affected. Neighborhoods like Ponderosa were not notified about what specific changes were in store for their community.

In the end, the county made more than 50 changes to the way neighborhoods could be developed, but no hearings were held to allow the public to comment on those changes, at least not until neighborhood groups sued for a chance to comment.

For all those people who say they were out of the loop when the county was determining its land-use policy, other property owners were intensely interested.

Harris said he’d prefer it if one-acre lots were allowed under the new land-use laws. In that case, he echoes the sentiment of many residents now balking at higher density housing rules. But promoting that lifestyle isn’t allowed by a landmark state law requiring local governments to stop expanding outward and start building inward. That law, the Growth Management Act, demanded local governments hem growth in by creating boundaries around urban areas and encouraging homes to be built closer together. A statewide group, the Building Industry Association of Washington, is even blunter with upset neighbors, saying growth management and the comprehensive plan are bells that can’t be unrung. Neighborhood protests over new developments have become the norm under the Growth Management Act, but they haven’t made a significant impact

“They can kind of throw a monkey wrench into things, but they can’t stop it,” said Erin Shannon, a spokesperson for the Building Industry Association of Washington. “Ultimately the GMA is going to win, but they make projects drag on through the legal system.”

The need for some kind of growth plan is real. The Spokane area is on track for its second-largest housing boom on record, some 30,000 new homes and apartments since 1990, according to U.S. Census data. The bulk of that growth is on the eastern end of Spokane Valley. Only the 1970s, when the greater Spokane region added 37,257 homes, surpasses the current boom. Avista Utilities, which tracks building permits quarterly, indicates nearly 6,000 home permits have been issued in the last three years, along with 2,600 permits for apartment units. Avista estimates of the area’s growth spurt begin in 1995 and peg new homes and apartments at roughly 20,000 in the last nine years.

Ron Oman is one of those neighbors Shannon would say is wielding a monkey wrench. Oman, and several hundred other neighbors in the Ponderosa neighborhood, a community at the southern edge of the Dishman Hills Natural Area, is battling to keep a 181-home project from being built in a 30-acre forested draw. The development is also a Douglass project.

Ponderosa neighbors say Douglass has already told them there isn’t much they can do to stop the project. Laws under the city and county comprehensive land-use plans allow the density, although surrounding homes in place for 30 years or more rest on one-acre plots. Neighborhoods like Ponderosa were selected by the county for high density exactly because they have room for more houses. But room doesn’t translate into suitability for Oman, who speaks in disbelief about the compact development slated for the property across the street from his spacious yard.

“It just seems like these developers throw out something and wait to see what the government is going to say,” Oman said. “That’s planning?”

As Cliff Cameron, Douglass’ project consultant, told Ponderosa neighbors a month ago, they might not have known their zoning was changing, but someone wanting the project did. Some landowners lobbied for the higher density.

“Somebody must have asked for it, the former property owner, probably,” Cameron said. “You can’t do anything about it.”

In Spokane Valley, property owners staged the modern day equivalent of the Oklahoma land grab in the months leading up to the “urban growth boundary,” the imaginary line around the community intended to prevent growth from sprawling into the countryside.

County land-use applications show landowners on the nongrowth side of the boundary rushed to create 1,340 lots in the three months leading up to the boundary, effectively carving 1,605 acres of so-called reserved land into future home sites. The lots would have been out of the question once the county urban growth boundary became law.

Other landowners fought for their land to be pulled inside the urban growth area, or for the right to develop at densities higher than their neighbors might have preferred.

But the county’s two largest cities are pushing for more neighborhood involvement. Spokane relies on neighborhood groups, encouraging them to come up with plans for their areas. And the president of the city of Spokane’s planning commission is advising the newly formed city of Spokane Valley to get residents involved in setting development rules specific to each neighborhood.

Oman’s neighborhood might get a do-over because Ponderosa is in Spokane Valley and the new city has to develop its own comprehensive land-use plan. The city has used the county’s plan since incorporating in 2003 because state law mandates some kind of land-use plan. Spokane Valley expects to have its own plan by early 2006. Any change won’t affect projects already in the pipeline, but two years from now the rules for growth could be different. In Ponderosa, Oman and his neighbors are proposing a rezone to return the development standards back to one home per acre. They’re asking for at least a temporary return to one-home, one-acre land rules now.

Unlike the last rezoning, which was done by the county, public hearings are likely for each neighborhood facing a land-use change under Spokane Valley’s developing plan. Bill Gothmann, the Spokane Valley planning commission chairman, said he’s going out of his way to get neighborhood input. When matters concerning a particular neighborhood come before the commission, the chairman personally walks the neighborhood, stuffing mailboxes with notices detailing the potential effects on landowners.

Some neighborhoods aren’t waiting to change land-use rules they don’t like. In Greenacres, Mary Pollard and her neighbors have raised $1,800 to try to force Spokane Valley to reduce their zoning from the six homes an acre imposed by the county to just three and a half homes.

There’s no guarantee they’ll get what they want, Pollard admitted, but they don’t have what they want now.

“For the most part, we’re just wage earners, but we had to do something,” Pollard said.

She and her Greenacres neighbors aren’t anti-growth, Pollard said, but if their neighborhood is going to develop, they would like it if their dream isn’t replaced by someone else’s. Theirs is a country lifestyle encroached by city on three sides. The neighborhood was one home an acre until two years ago.

Listen closely at Pollard’s house, and you can hear the rolling tires on Interstate 90, less than a half-mile away. A mile to the east, there are two 500-home subdivisions under construction. When the wind blows from the west, you can smell Krispy Kreme doughnuts from the Spokane Valley Mall, also a mile away. But life around her home just off Flora Road is pastoral.

What society should do, Pollard said, is connect developers willing to build only a couple homes an acre with older landowners in need of retirement money who are willing to sell, though she hasn’t found that developer yet. What society should do, she said, is make sure legacy is preserved along with private property rights.

“You have to look at it as if you have some fabric and you’re going to make a dress. You have to use the right pieces and not waste any,” Pollard said. “The developer doesn’t have that attachment. It’s about what the developer wants. It’s about profit.”

In Linde Hackett’s neighborhood, the pickle jar is getting full.


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