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Opinion

Sun., March 29, 2009, 7:38 a.m.

Our View: Plan to buy unwise, a poor fit for conservation fund

When YMCA leaders broke ground for their building on Havermale Island more than 46 years ago, Y president (and later Spokane mayor) David H. Rodgers proclaimed it “part of the orderly development of this downtown area.”

Development? Wash your mouth out, Mr. Mayor.

After nearly half a century, the Y is about to move to new digs on North Monroe. As for what happens next with the Havermale site it is vacating, however, “development” has become a dirty word.

So much so that the Spokane Park Board impulsively put $1 million down on the land in 2006 just to make sure it wouldn’t go to a private developer who wanted to build condominiums there. We say “impulsively” because the full price tag was $5.3 million, and the Park Board had no clear idea of where it would get the substantial balance, which it now needs to pay to avoid losing its down payment.

Enter the Board of Spokane County Commissioners, who gave conditional approval last week to bail the Park Board out by tapping the county’s Conservation Futures fund. More about the Byzantine conditions in a moment. First let’s ponder what this property – surrounded as it is by urban development and occupied as it has been since JFK was president by a recreational structure and for years before that by a surface parking lot abutting a railroad trestle – has to do with conservation.

Futures tax background

County commissioners created the Conservation Futures fund in 1994 as a way to keep open space, recreational land and wildlife habitat from being swallowed up by housing and other developments. With voter encouragement in the form of an advisory ballot issue, the commissioners imposed a modest property tax of 6 cents per thousand dollars of valuation to build the fund.

Their first major purchase was 86 cedar-covered acres adjacent to Liberty Lake for $235,000. For comparison purposes, if the plan approved this week goes forward, the county will pay $350,000 a year out of the fund for the next 20 years to acquire four-fifths of an acre.

Over the years, the fund has been parlayed with grants, private philanthropy and the civic spirit of landowners to secure public ownership of such splendid holdings as Antoine Peak, Big Rock and other invaluable features in Spokane County.

“The idea is to preserve some land ahead of growth,” former County Parks Director Sam Angove once said.

The Park Board’s plan, on the contrary, is to remove growth and development features that have been in place for decades and, presumably, restore the site as a natural setting. Even if that’s the best use of the land, it’s not the use that has been promoted on the three occasions county voters have been asked for their blessing of the Conservation Futures tax.

Developing urban living

Fortunately, this unwise decision isn’t final yet.

Among several conditions, both the Park Board and the Spokane City Council must demonstrate their support for the decision. That means the Spokane Park Board, which has fiercely guarded its autonomy from City Hall interference, would cede final approval of park design to county officials. And that the City Council, which can’t afford a decent animal-control operation, would dedicate some of its depleted resources to digging up supplemental grants for the county.

The Park Board has already spent $8,000 on a nonscientific survey intended to demonstrate public support for spending Conservation Futures money in this way. And if the deal goes through, it will have to provide thousands to cover demolition of the structure.

It’s hard to understand what inspires such disdain for the idea of bringing urban living to the banks of the Spokane River – in developments that not only generate desperately needed tax revenues to the city but also provide civic life, which in turn bolsters public safety and security in an area that otherwise may well breed risk and crime.

The city has the capacity to insist that developers preserve not only view corridors but also direct public access to the vistas that overlook the river that runs through this city. Every developer with designs on choice locations understands that by now.

When it comes time for the City Council to vote on whether to support the county commissioners’ dubious decision, we hope the members reflect carefully on how it affects the future of this city.



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