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Valley won’t let school capacity limit growth

Spokane Valley won’t be required to stop development if it overloads schools, police or fire districts under the latest draft of the city’s new rules on building.

On Tuesday, the City Council reversed an earlier split decision by the Planning Commission that would have obligated the city to deny building permits for projects if those services could not adequately be provided.

“I just see no way that the city should be responsible for concurrency on schools,” Councilman Bill Gothmann said.

Others on the council agreed, indicating they did not want decisions on growth in the city affected by the school districts they have no control over.

Rapid construction in Central Valley School District has intensified discussions in recent years over the relationship between local governments’ development policies and schools. The district asked the city to collect an impact fee from developers to help offset school construction costs and has notified Spokane Valley that it might not have room for any more students a year from now. But council members see more ways to handle the influx of students than by restricting growth.

“Just because there’s not a school in that particular area doesn’t mean that there aren’t any options,” said Councilman Mike DeVleming, listing portable classrooms, busing and school boundary changes as possible solutions to crowding.

Members of the Planning Commission, too, debated whether it would be a feasible to make city planning contingent on independent entities like school and fire districts. After it passed the mandatory concurrency requirements, as they are known by planners, one commissioner said she voted for the measure mostly because she wanted the council to address how Spokane Valley will deal with the impact that development has on public services.

The city has a responsibility to consider schools in its planning and to work with the districts to accommodate growth, said Central Valley Superintendent Mike Pearson.

“When people look at the Spokane community, one of the things they look at is the value and strength of schools,” Pearson said. “It’s critical that our elected officials, our government agencies work with schools.”

While it may seem simple to move students around to fill in classroom space, he said, “do we really want to bus a kid from one end of the district to the other, taking them out of the community?”

In the last year and a half since it requested impact fees, the district has worked closely with Liberty Lake as it considers the charges. Spokane Valley has not yet discussed the proposal and county leaders have indicated they will not take it up.

“School districts cannot collect impact fees,” Pearson said.

Although revenue from the fees would comprise only a fraction of the district’s overall budget, Pearson said their absence also has contributed to voters’ recent rejection of school bond proposals. Many voters have told the district they refused to pay for new schools if the developers bringing people into the area weren’t going to chip in, he said.

Impact fees for transportation, schools and other facilities could come before the council after it finishes its work on the development code, Mayor Diana Wilhite said Wednesday.

While she said the city should be mindful of how growth affects schools, managing their capacity during the development process wasn’t something that should be the responsibility of the city.

“I don’t think that is our role,” Wilhite said.

During the meeting Tuesday, the council also debated keeping fire service in the rules for mandatory concurrency. Fire and police were eventually left out after a discussion on the challenges of quantifying the impact of individual developments on public safety agencies.

Spokane Valley Fire Chief Mike Thompson indicated that his department’s needs could still be met if fire service, like police and schools, was moved to the list of items the city may consider – but is not required to consider – when development occurs.