Spokane County will begin a series of public hearings this week for residents to comment on rules designed to give landowners more flexibility in developing rural land while preserving open space.
The planning rules designate areas called rural clusters, and Spokane County was one of the first in the state to offer the idea.
Instead of one home per 10 acres, which is the rule for areas like Peone Prairie, Green Bluff and Orchard Prairie, rural clustering allows landowners to build homes on smaller lots closely grouped together.
While the regulations allow for smaller lots, state law also says that landowners must preserve the remainder of the land as open space – working agricultural land, timber stands or even wetlands – for perpetuity.
“We had been studying it for quite a bit,” said senior planner Steve Davenport, “because we have had some issues with rural development. With rural clusters, you reduce the impact to natural areas and provide open space. Then, hopefully, you can link the open spaces together and have a more environmentally sensitive development.”
As a result, rural clustering is not allowed on land that is zoned for large commercial farms, such as the vast wheat fields in south Spokane County. But in 2003, the Spokane County Commission complied with a developer’s request to include cluster developments in the small-track agriculture zone.
That allowed developers to start clustering homes in places like Green Bluff, which has sparked conflict, Davenport said.
“Some of the concerns are that (residents) don’t feel it is consistent with the rural lifestyle,” he said. “In clustering, you can attract people who really are not farmers and don’t work the land. Then you get conflicts between agricultural use and residents who are used to an urban setting.”
Judy Crowder and her neighbors on Green Bluff have been some of the largest critics of rural clustering. She agrees with the premise of preserving open space, but she fears county leaders will change the rules to allow more homes and permanently eliminate both farmland and her rural quality of life.
“We have lost Five Mile Prairie. It’s gone. Now this same thing is going to happen on the bluff,” Crowder said. “This is a huge issue.”
She believes the county is going to use a recent court ruling to circumvent state rules that say open spaces in rural clusters remain open forever.
Davenport agreed, to some extent, that the ruling by Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor is problematic. In her ruling, O’Connor essentially said that open space in a rural cluster must remain open unless the parcel is part of a zoning change that would allow further development.
The court ruling “set us back a little in terms of our view of how we permanently protect that open space,” Davenport said. “Basically, we have two options: protect it like we have,” knowing that changes to the comprehensive plan could mean further development, “or we could use conservation easements, which would permanently strip the development rights from the property. It would provide a more reliable means to ensure that open space remains open.”
Crowder said she hopes residents speak out because she’s convinced that future commissioners will bend to the desires of developers.
“We’ve got a systemic problem. The planners know they are not getting paid unless they give the building permits,” Crowder said. “In my view … we have a conflict of interest.”
Davenport understands Crowder’s concern, but said it’s highly unlikely that many of the rural areas in question would ever become part of the urban growth area, where the zone could be changed to allow more homes.
“Once you have established these open spaces, I think you would have a pretty good fight on your hands if you try to pull one of those out for additional development,” Davenport said. “But given that court case, there is always the possibility that the zoning could change.”
One of the options residents will consider is to remove clustering from the small-track agriculture zone, such as where Crowder lives and the large area of the county east of Deer Park.
Residents will have a chance to comment on all aspects of the rural clusters at the three upcoming public hearings. Those comments will be considered by the Spokane County Planning Commission, which is expected to recommend changes to the Spokane County Commission later this spring.
Davenport reiterated that rural clusters provide many advantages, such as making it easier to provide utilities, reducing storm runoff and allowing firefighters easier access when responding to emergencies.
“The question is how that open land is protected and can it be developed in the future. That’s one of the core issues,” he said. “I think conservation easements hold a lot of promise for providing a more permanent level of protection.”