The amount of land earmarked for urban growth across Spokane County appears likely to expand, perhaps significantly.
County commissioners want to use the most aggressive population growth estimates available from the state, citing a desire to prepare for an influx of people. But some city leaders argue the higher numbers will encourage greater sprawl and drain resources.
Spokane and Spokane Valley officials favor the state’s midrange forecast, which still is more ambitious than the county’s actual growth rate in recent years.
“Where the real rub will come is in the funding of the infrastructure,” said Spokane City Councilman Al French, who believes the county is inviting too many growth-related problems. “At some point there is going to be a day of reckoning.”
County commissioners, who make the final decision on growth numbers, have told members of the Spokane County Growth Management Steering Committee they will forecast population at the highest state estimate – almost 658,000 by 2025. The midrange estimate shows total county population rising to about 562,000 during the same time period. Some 418,000 live in the county now, according to the latest census figures.
The population figures are a key component in determining how far to extend urban growth boundaries, which determine where development can occur. The higher the county estimates, the more property that could be declared ripe for growth.
Commissioner Phil Harris said it’s important to use the higher numbers in planning so counties and municipalities are ready if the higher population actually moves in.
“You’ve got to prepare for the worst-case scenario,” Harris said. “I don’t see a thing wrong in using the high projection.”
Worries about growth in rural areas
But Spokane and Spokane Valley leaders on the steering committee argued that the higher number could push growth farther into rural areas, causing sewer and other service costs to skyrocket.
Spokane County leaders say cities will have a say in determining how much of the new population will fit into city limits. The county will make room for the remainder on unincorporated land.
The steering committee has recommended using the middle range among three forecasts released in January 2002 by the state Office of Financial Management. Since the estimate was generated, Spokane County’s population has grown at a rate slightly smaller than the office’s middle forecast, according to a state report.
Spokane Valley City Councilman Rich Munson questioned the likelihood that the higher numbers favored by commissioners would come to fruition, considering that even the steering committee’s preferred figure is higher than population forecasts created by Avista and the Spokane Regional Transportation Council. Planning for a higher number costs more, Munson said.
“If you’re going to do land analysis and do the right kind of planning for infrastructure, you don’t do that for nothing,” said Munson, who serves as the steering committee chairman.
County Commissioner Mark Richard said there’s a much bigger cost to not planning for the growth.
“If we don’t do that (plan for the higher number), the public will say that we failed,” Richard said, noting that “a plan doesn’t mean that we have to build six-lane roads to nowhere.”
Spokane County will use the population estimates this year as it updates its comprehensive plan, a guide for long-term growth. State rules require the plan be updated every five years. The county’s deadline to finish the revision is Dec. 1. Before the growth boundaries are expanded, however, state law requires that cities and the county be able to prove that they can afford to pay for the infrastructure needed to support the growth.
French said he worries that forecasting for higher growth would open more rural land for development and stunt revitalization in cities.
“In the city of Spokane we have a lot of in-fill opportunities,” French said. “The thing that will help drive that is lack of competitive challenge to that development.”
Richard, the former government affairs director for the Spokane Home Builders Association, said it would be wrong to “artificially restrict the supply” by planning for fewer people. The growth boundary already is contributing to the rising home prices because the supply of land has been restricted, he said.