From their front deck at Orchard Prairie in north Spokane County, Don Hamilton and Lorna St. John look out over the small farms, hills and mountains that give breadth to their country lifestyle.
To protect that lifestyle, they are mounting a legal fight to stop a big Spokane County road project.
Hamilton, St. John and their neighbors filed suit last month in U.S. District Court in Western Washington to force the county to conduct a more exhaustive environmental review of a project that would dramatically change the landscape on Orchard Prairie. “There’s no question that once you build a massive highway of this scale that it will forever alter the rural character of this more than 100-year-old community,” Hamilton said.
Cutting across the prairie today is the two-lane Bigelow Gulch Road, which runs from the end of Francis Avenue near Freya Street east to Forker Road on the north side of Spokane Valley.
Residents along the route have supported safety improvements to Bigelow Gulch, they said, but not a high-volume, four- to five-lane road capable of moving freight from Hillyard to Spokane Valley.
Under the plan, Bigelow Gulch would tie into Forker Road and then be connected to Sullivan Road via a new segment running across what are now East Valley School District playfields.
Spokane County issued an “environmental determination of nonsignificance” in August, following an environmental assessment completed in 2006. The county did not conduct a more thorough environmental impact statement, which prairie residents seek.
The residents contend the county is trying to build a connector to feed the south end of a partially completed North Spokane freeway at Francis Avenue and Freya Street. They believe the project would damage wildlife, increase noise and open the prairie to more intense development. The first leg of the North Spokane freeway between Francis and Farwell Road is scheduled to open next year.
Completion of the freeway south through Hillyard to Interstate 90 is years and billions of dollars away.
“This is the de facto completion of the freeway,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton, St. John, the Prairie Protection Association and resident Quentin Wood, who has been approached by the county for right-of-way acquisition, are suing to force the federal government to order more thorough review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Defendants are the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration and officials within those agencies. The county is not named as a defendant.
The nonprofit law firm Center for Justice in Spokane is doing the legal work.
Attorney Rick Eichstadt said the lawsuit was filed against the federal government because its funds are being sought to build the project, and environmental requirements under federal law are tougher than the state’s. In particular, federal law requires greater analysis of a project if it affects school properties, he said. The county proposes bisecting East Valley school grounds, then building a pedestrian tunnel for access to the divided property.
The county in 2006 estimated the cost of the Bigelow Gulch project at $52.6 million. Completion of the freeway south of Francis would cost $3.3 billion over a 20-year build out, state transportation officials said.
County and federal officials did not respond to telephone requests for interviews.
The county’s analysis said the route currently carries between four and 10 million tons of freight annually and that the project was identified as a high priority by the state Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board. For more information, visit protecttheprairie.org or spokanecounty.org/ countyhome.aspx and follow the link to county engineer.
•Hatch Road from 43rd to 54th avenues is expected to reopen Wednesday.
•Broadway Avenue remains closed from Havana to Freya streets under a $2.1 million project to realign Broadway in advance of another project to build a bridge on Freya north of Broadway. Alki Way and the intersection of Alki and Freya is now open.
•Driscoll Boulevard from Alberta to Assembly streets will reopen today.
•Barker Road Bridge over the Spokane River remains closed to all through traffic through late 2009.
•The Geiger spur rail realignment is continuing with flaggers and lane changes in effect at the crossing on State Route 902 west of Craig Road. In addition, Thorpe Road west of Craig near the rail crossing is closed.
Studs legal in Idaho
Washingtonians who use studded snow tires must wait until Nov. 1 to mount them on their vehicles. But it’s already legal for Idahoans, and the tires can stay put until April 30, according to the Idaho Transportation Department.