Linda Dixon, like a lot of Spokane Valley residents, has learned to dread the “Notice of Application” signs that crop up on neighborhood streets whenever a new development is in the works.
She dislikes them, not for what they say, but rather for what they don’t – that change is on the way and there isn’t a darn thing she can do about it. That there will be a hearing where she can speak her mind, but that her mind doesn’t matter. That’s the impression she got this spring when a nearby landowner rolled out plans to build 13 new homes on little more than two acres in Dixon’s North Farr Road neighborhood.
Dixon’s stretch of Farr is lined with 1920s craftsman-style bungalows on lots of an acre or more. She went to the hearing on the 13-home project to tell Spokane Valley officials the development just didn’t fit. What she said didn’t seem to matter.
“I just walked away feeling that it was total waste of time,” Dixon said Wednesday. “We attended the meeting. We responded to everything we were given. But it was just a formality that they had to get out of the way to legalize what they were doing.”
Homeowners from Ponderosa to North Greenacres have been saying the same thing for some time. And earlier this month Spokane Valley’s outgoing community development director, Marina Sukup, seemed to give credence to neighbors have been saying. On the subject of community involvement in the planning process, Sukup, whose last day was June 22, told the Valley Voice: “There’s a lot of lip service to citizen participation, but the citizens really aren’t empowered.”
The Valley edition of Your Voice spent last week reviewing city decisions on residential development projects, particularly projects that involved a significant increase in the amount of homes on a piece of land. In most cases those decisions involved allowing a developer to create six home lots per acre in a neighborhoods where existing zoning regulations allowed just 3.5 lots. Much of Spokane Valley is already zoned for no more than 3.5 building lots per acre. The change to six lots is a common one, especially in neighborhoods where a single home might sit on an acre of land by itself.
In almost every case, neighbors who testified to the projects proposed around them said last week that their concerns didn’t effect the outcome. Most said they weren’t flat opposed to all development, but just wanted less.
“I’ve never said stop a development,” said Chuck Hafner, a resident of southwest Spokane Valley’s Ponderosa neighborhood. “I say just be reasonable with what you’re trying to do.”
For the past five years, Hafner’s neighborhood has challenged development projects large and small over issues like housing density and fire safety. A large portion of Ponderosa consists of homes on lots an acre or larger in size. New developments proposed in the neighborhood are more in line with six homes per acre. That’s a rough transition, neighbors argue, though their concerns about housing density haven’t changed the number of building lots approved in their area.
The bigger concern, Hafner said, is fire safety. A couple thousand people live in the forested neighborhood, which is serviced by only two exits. Their fire safety concerns have been considered in projects proposed for Ponderosa. Six years ago, a large project was postponed so its effects on traffic could be studied. The project on Bates Road was eventually approved, but not before the hearing examiner concluded that a chained emergency road accessible only by firefighters had be constructed.
Hearing Examiner Michael Dempsey disagrees with the notion that neighbors can’t influence development decisions in their area. In a recent case in North Greenacres for example, Dempsey said he ordered a developer to pave a driveway because it passed close enough to a neighbors’ window to raise concerns about noise and dust.
On project by project basis, much of what can be debated concerns issues like traffic counts, air quality, soil erosion, technical issues, Dempsey said. Not everything is up for debate. There are laws protecting the property owner’s right to develop to the extent of what’s allowed.
“There is a state law that says if there are specific standards and your development is consistent with that, then you can’t deny or condition the project on those standards,” Dempsey said. “I’d get appealed and reversed in a heartbeat if I did.”
In other words, if development laws allow for six homes on a piece of land and a property owner’s proposed project meets those laws, it’s illegal to reject his project or require him to meet any special conditions, which speaks to another issue raised by Spokane Valley’s outgoing planning director.
“A lot of what we’re required to do is hardwired into statute,” Sukup said, in a statement issued by the city Wednesday. Also, by the time that white notice of application sign goes up in a neighborhood, the time for making real changes to neighborhood development has long passed.
Neighborhood zoning is decided during the community’s creation of a comprehensive plan for development. Before Spokane Valley incorporated in 2003, landholders were critical of the zoning created by Spokane County during its comprehensive plan hearings, which were poorly attended by the public. Landowners successfully sued the county for not holding enough public meetings before finalizing their plan and meetings were held after the fact to appease the court.
Spokane Valley wrapped up its comprehensive plan hearings last year. The city held more meetings than the county, but the attendance wasn’t great.
“I think certain elements that have a vested interest were there,” said Mayor Diana Wilhite, meaning developers and landowners pursuing specific changes to land use ordinances. The general public was less represented.
Neighbors tend not to get involved in planning matters until there’s something affecting them directly, Wilhite said. It’s hard for the average person to come home from work and head out the door for a general meeting on future community development, when it’s not clear how those issues will change the neighborhood in years to come.
The mayor sees changes though in community involvement in the early phases of community planning. Spokane Valley is in the middle of crafting plans for a new town center as well as massive revitalization of Sprague Avenue. Public participation in that matter has been strong and Wilhite said she hopes that involvement will translate for some into a general interest in community planning.
“I don’t think we give lip service,” Wilhite said. “I can’t tell you how many people we’ve engaged when we talked about the Sprague/Appleway City Center. On the other hand, when we did open houses for pools we didn’t get near the turnout.”
In neighborhoods like Ponderosa, Wilhite said, there are now a few people always on the lookout for planning issues who give everyone else a heads up. She calls them prairie dogs because of the way they look around and alert others. Every neighborhood needs one, she said.