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Development unites residents

Otis Orchards homeowners, who usually pride themselves on a lifestyle of rural self-reliance, are now banding together to face what they see as an encroaching threat from development in Liberty Lake and Spokane Valley.

“If we don’t have our ducks in a row, they’re going to roll over us,” Cindy Marshall told a crowd of nearly 100 drawn to the Four Corners Country Bakery on Wednesday by a flurry of fliers and phone calls.

The last time Otis Orchards residents banded together to specifically define their community and resist change to it was in the 1970s, when county commissioners were successfully persuaded to zone the area for 5-acre tracts and stop denser development there.

A committee of about 20 formed after the recent meeting in the hopes that they might repeat that success. “If we can stay as a community, we can speak as a community,” said Marian Lonam.

Otis Orchards residents – who have no town hall or local government – also rallied in 2003 for a successful effort to modify Avista’s plans to run high-voltage transmission lines through the area.

What many residents find most threatening now is a plan to eventually develop 900 acres for commercial and mixed-use purposes, surrounded by 3,000 houses and apartments in or adjacent to Liberty Lake.

The River Crossing project is being undertaken by Jim Frank’s Greenstone Corp. and a subsidiary of the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

Frank has offered repeated assurances that there are no immediate plans to develop land north of the river, most recently at a meeting at the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District that attracted about 60 Otis Orchards residents.

Many, though, still worry about the future of rural land north of the river where abundant water rights and proximity to the new sewer plant and other public facilities could make it prime for development.

About 300 acres of a 1,200-acre district that would redirect sales taxes to subsidize infrastructure in River Crossing are on the north side of the river.

And like a ladder against the battlements, Otis Orchards residents see plans for a footbridge across the river as proof of the companies’ intentions to develop there.

“I think they are slowly just swallowing us up,” Marshall said.

Much of the Otis Orchards group’s efforts are likely to center on a long-delayed update to Spokane County’s comprehensive plan that will expand the boundaries where urban growth is allowed.

Sizable acreage near Harvard and Euclid owned by the Cowles subsidiary is already included in an area designated urban reserve, which identifies it as a favorable place for urban development in the future.

While the county Building and Planning Department shows no request has been made to bring that land within the updated urban growth boundary, Nut Factory owner Gene Cohen has requested that high-density residential and commercial building be allowed on 20 acres across Harvard Road from the Cowles property.

Some at Wednesday’s meeting also expressed anxiety regarding an 85-lot subdivision designed at about six houses per acre on land fronting Euclid at the eastern edge of Spokane Valley.

Others worried about the future of Otis Orchards Elementary, though East Valley School Board member Kerri Lunstroth quelled rumors that Liberty Lake was planning to take over the school. “School district boundaries always remain school district boundaries. The city has nothing to do with that,” she said.