Some Spokane Valley City Council members, like their critics, are asking whether it makes sense to implement zoning regulations based on a road that doesn’t exist.
The city’s proposed Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan calls for new zoning along current and future sections of Appleway Boulevard as well as Sprague Avenue.
Some property owners along the undeveloped portion of Appleway, between University and Sullivan roads, object to a zoning code that calls for housing along a landscaped extension of Appleway Boulevard that may never be built.
Mayor Rich Munson and Councilwoman Diana Wilhite said at last week’s City Council meeting that they doubted the city would be able to acquire the undeveloped Appleway right of way from Spokane County.
“I don’t feel good about it at all,” Munson said. “We’ve been working on this thing for three years – four, I guess it is now – and I don’t see any progress.”
The abandoned rail line extends from Argonne Road in Spokane Valley to Liberty Lake Drive in Liberty Lake, and commissioners want to preserve a 28-foot-wide portion as the backbone of a future rapid transit corridor.
Wilhite said she had the feeling county commissioners wouldn’t hand over the county-owned land without extracting something from the city. She suggested the demand might be so unpalatable that the council would tell the commissioners to “get out there and clean up those weeds because we’re going to do something else.”
In fact, commissioners may no longer be willing to transfer the former Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Co. right of way to the city without charge, Chairman Todd Mielke confirmed.
“Conditions change over time,” Mielke said.
The county road fund is “dramatically” poorer than it was when commissioners offered to donate the right of way five years ago, he said. Now commissioners are considering whether the fund, which paid for the rail line, should be reimbursed.
Commissioners also are thinking about recovering their costs in defending county ownership of the land in a lawsuit the city filed in December 2006.
“We have certainly laid out legal fees, and property does change value over the course of 20 years,” Mielke said.
Besides, he asked, “Why is there an assumption that there will be no cost of right-of-way acquisition for the extension of the Appleway couplet? That’s certainly not what every other road project would go through.”
Spokane County paid $3.25 million for the right of way in 1980.
Munson replied: “Our taxpayers paid at least half of that money that they put out.”
Mielke said commissioners had made no decision on whether to charge the city for the land, and he didn’t know when they would get to the issue.
“Right now we’re trying to work through their snow-plowing stuff,” he said, alluding to the city’s plea for relief from a county decision to quit plowing the city’s streets this fall.
Commissioners announced in December that they would cancel the city’s contract for snow removal, in part because city officials insisted on paying only for the time county crews spent on city streets. The county has to pay the workers day in and day out to keep them available.
With the plowing contract and worries about the cities of Spokane and Airway Heights annexing county territory, “we kind of have our hands full right now,” Mielke said.
Still, Wilhite was eager to learn the county’s intentions for the Appleway Boulevard right of way.
“I think we need to get on the stick and pound on the county commissioners … (to) find out what it is they want from us,” Wilhite said at last week’s council meeting.
Without some certainty about the Appleway extension, implementing the Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan in the extension area “puts people in a bind,” Wilhite said. “We don’t want things to develop that we wouldn’t like to see there for the long term, but on the other hand, when we can’t provide them an access road, how can we deny them from doing other things?”
Like Munson, Wilhite was reluctant to implement the revitalization plan except in the area west of University Road, including a new city center district at the University City Shopping Center and the Auto Row district.
Aside from uncertainties about the Appleway extension, Munson thought the plan shouldn’t be implemented east of University until the new city center district proves itself.
“We know that, if city center doesn’t work, none of it’s going to work,” Munson said. “That’s kind of a given in all of the discussions that we’ve had. We have to get the public to agree that what we had in mind at city center not only is a good idea, but it’s actually working.”
Councilwoman Rose Dempsey agreed, while Councilmen Gary Schimmels and Dick Denenny were ambivalent.
Councilmen Steve Taylor and Bill Gothmann argued for full implementation.
The rest of Sprague Avenue needs revitalization as soon as possible, Taylor said. Also, he noted, the plan calls for promoting the city center’s success by restricting uses elsewhere.
East of University Road, the plan should be implemented only along Sprague Avenue until Appleway Boulevard is extended, Denenny suggested. But City Attorney Mike Connelly and plan manager Scott Kuhta said that would require a major rewrite of the plan.
“We’d have to start over again,” Connelly said.
City officials want a 72-foot-wide portion of the county-owned right of way for eastward extensions of Appleway Boulevard – first to Evergreen Road and later to Sullivan Road.
There’s no conflict between the boulevard and rapid transit where the right of way is 100 feet wide – as it is between Argonne and University Roads, where the county built the existing portion of Appleway Boulevard before Spokane Valley was incorporated in 2003. But the corridor gets narrower in places, down to as little as 56 feet in some areas where the boulevard is to be extended.
City officials rejected the county’s offer to give them the right of way on condition that the city help buy land in the choke points to ensure the corridor is wide enough for rapid transit as well as Appleway Boulevard.
Instead, the city in February went all the way to the Washington Supreme Court in a failed effort to force the county to hand over the right of way without strings.
Was it a bad idea to look a gift horse in the mouth?
“That gift horse would have cost the city millions of dollars,” Munson said in an interview after last week’s council meeting. “… I’m sure there’re still some hurt feelings about us going all the way to the courts, but there wasn’t any indication that it was going to get solved any other way.”
Attorneys for the city and county have been negotiating since October, but Mielke said only the date seems to change on the city’s proposals.
“Every proposal that they have shipped us says, ‘Give it to us and we’ll give you back in the form of an easement whatever we don’t need,’ ” Mielke said. “Over and over under their proposals, we would end up with a fragmented corridor for future (rapid transit) use.”
Munson said the city’s position is that, “if the Spokane Transit Authority wants to build a rapid transit corridor and there’s not enough room to do that, then the STA should buy the land.” However, he said the city and the STA are close to an agreement in which the transit authority would pay for whatever extra land it needs.
Susan Meyer, the STA’s chief executive officer, said last month that the proposed agreement is an improvement over the city’s previous demand for the transit authority to pay even for extra land the city might need. The tentative deal called for the STA to pay only for extra land it needed.
However, Meyer said, “I think we’re going to wait until Spokane County and Spokane Valley have decided what they’re going to do. They both serve on our board of directors.”
Meanwhile, she said, the city and the STA were negotiating the purchase of extra land they would need in two places.
Munson said the city has gone to court to prevent the owners of those parcels from using the land for other purposes and has passed zoning regulations preventing property owners from building permanent structures on land designated for future public use, including the rapid transit corridor.
“What more proof do you need that we are serious?” Munson asked.
Softening his earlier pessimism, Munson said he was confident the dispute would be settled by the end of the year.
Taylor also predicted a settlement.
Like Munson, he saw transportation as the only realistic and politically acceptable use for the old railroad right of way.
“It’s the right public policy and, as county commissioners also represent Spokane Valley citizens, it’s in their best interests for the development to proceed,” Taylor said.
The county may own the land, but only the city can build a road on it, Munson said.