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Kids may be in crash zone

 Construction crews work the future headquarters of the Ambassadors Group Wednesday. The building, which includes plans for a day care center, is being built in a crash zone of Spokane International Airport.  
 (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Construction crews work the future headquarters of the Ambassadors Group Wednesday. The building, which includes plans for a day care center, is being built in a crash zone of Spokane International Airport. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County’s top building official ruled in March that a child care center could be placed in a Spokane International Airport crash zone in a decision that disregarded county zoning laws.

The ruling, made by Building and Planning Director Jim Manson at the request of the developer of the project, jeopardizes future expansion of the airport, Neal Sealock, the airport director, said Wednesday after hearing about it from a reporter.

Allowing a day care near a proposed runway in violation of county law is one of several allegations in a “whistle-blower” complaint filed earlier this month by county planner Bruce Hunt, who accuses county leaders of providing special favors for developers at the expense of zoning and other rules.

Hunt said the concerns cited in his complaint are shared by the majority of the county’s professional planning staff.

“I’m concerned about our ability to administer the planning laws,” Hunt said in an interview earlier this month. He declined to go into specifics of the complaint, citing an ongoing investigation.

Richard Vandervert, a developer involved in two projects cited in the complaint, said Hunt has left out key details.

“I have never gotten favorable treatment from the county, from anybody ever,” Vandervert said. “He’s totally in left field.”

Manson said Wednesday that he is not allowed to go into details about the complaint because it is under investigation.

“I would like to (discuss the allegations) but I just can’t right now,” Manson said. “I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong whatsoever.”

The county’s whistle-blower policy requires the county to investigate claims of wrongdoing and prohibits retaliation against employees.

Jim Emacio, the county’s civil chief deputy prosecuting attorney, said officials are looking into the complaint and have forwarded Hunt’s five-page letter along with supporting documents to a Stevens County deputy prosecutor for investigation.

The day care center was proposed at a meeting about the future headquarters of the Ambassadors Group, a Spokane company that sends travelers and students on international and domestic trips. The company announced in the spring that it will build a new 100,000-square-foot complex near the airport. The land is within one of the airport’s “accident potential zones” or crash zones.

Spokane County’s zoning code states that day care centers and more than a dozen other kinds of buildings are not allowed in the kind of accident potential zone where the Ambassadors headquarters is being built. No exceptions are listed.

If a day care is placed in the headquarters, it likely would cause the Federal Aviation Administration to prevent the airport from building a runway that the airport and county has had on planning maps for decades, Sealock said. It’s unclear when the airport would need another runway, but Sealock said it’s a matter of when – not if.

“A child care center would jeopardize the future use of the airport’s public land,” Sealock said. “It’s part of our responsibility to safeguard it for future use.”

Vandervert said the landing strip could be so far off in the future that it is ridiculous to tie up property that could be promoting economic growth. He also says that Fairchild Air Force Base does not support the location of the proposed runway.

Sealock strongly disagrees.

“If he had that from any (Fairchild) official, that position has not been voiced with me and I deal with Fairchild all the time,” Sealock said.

Sealock, who participated in the meeting, said he had been led to believe that the day care center would not be allowed and that if the company wanted the day care, it would be built outside the zone.

That’s not what Vandervert remembers of the meeting.

“What I came away with was it would be considered at a later date if and when Ambassadors decided to request it,” Vandervert said.

A letter written by Vandervert to Manson after the meeting shows Vandervert worked to receive permission for a child care center from Manson in writing to assure Ambassador officials that it would have the ability to have a day care.

Vandervert’s letter criticized Sealock for opposing the day care.

“This runway may never be built in our lifetime or our children’s lifetime, and still he thinks he can encumber almost all of our property indefinitely. I think a judge would not allow this, but it’s going to take a long time,” Vandervert wrote in his letter.

A day before Manson wrote his decision about the day care, he received a letter from D. Jason Strain, the development coordinator for Vandervert’s development company.

“Per our conversation today, I just wanted to remind you about the letter we’re waiting for regarding Spokane County’s position on the zoning,” Strain wrote.

He went on to suggest language Manson should use in his decision, some of which appeared in Manson’s ruling.

Chadwick Byrd, Ambassadors Group’s chief financial officer, said Ambassador has no immediate plans to put a day care in its new headquarters, which is expected to open in the fall. However, before buying the property, Ambassador wanted to make sure they had the option to have a day care for employees in case of expansion.

In his letter, Vandervert said the airport was jeopardizing the project, which he said represented 400 jobs to the county.

Sealock responded that even if that’s the case, the airport and future expansions of the airport represent exponentially more jobs to the Spokane region. He said the day care issue should be reconsidered.

“We would ask that there be additional public scrutiny,” Sealock said.

Hunt’s complaint also alleges other misdeeds by Manson, including that Manson rezoned eight acres owned by Vandervert without a public hearing. Hunt had been involved in marking the zoning on official county maps but refused to make the change, his letter says.

A few weeks ago, building leaders announced that Hunt’s mapping duties would be transferred to another department.

Vandervert said Wednesday that his company has completed all the proper legal requirements.

Hunt also alleges Manson refunded development fees of more than $5,000 in violation of county policy to people who applied for two amendments to Spokane County’s comprehensive plan, which is the long-term growth proposal.