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Lawsuit over river discharges could be boon for wetland

Tue., Aug. 24, 2010

If treatment plant stalls, zone swap offers option

A lawsuit over river discharges threatens the January 2012 startup of a new Spokane County sewage treatment plant, so officials are working on a backup.

Plan B, restoration of a wetland with treated wastewater, requires county officials to exercise many of the land-use tools in their kit – and one that doesn’t yet exist.

As part of contracts to purchase water rights and 346 acres at Saltese Flats, south of Spokane Valley, county commissioners agreed to pursue a zoning code change that would allow development rights to be transferred from one property to another.

They also agreed to initiate comprehensive plan and zone changes on behalf of the seller, Millar “Bud” Morrison II.

Morrison’s family has owned the Saltese Flats land for more than a century. Much of it was a wetland before the family drained it for farming in the early 1900s.

“It’s a fabulous wetland restoration project, and it would be terrific for the community,” county Utilities Director Bruce Rawls said in an interview earlier this year.

Morrison has agreed to donate land for a visitor center named after his mother, Doris Morrison, who died several years ago at 103.

If the county gets a Spokane River discharge permit for its new $167 million treatment plant in time to prevent a Spokane Valley construction moratorium, Saltese Flats “becomes sort of our insurance policy for the future,” Rawls said.

Growth eventually may require more river discharge capacity than state or federal regulators will grant. Plans call for a smaller wetland project, using natural water, if the state grants a river discharge permit in time.

The county’s agreement with Morrison notes commissioners must follow all the usual land-use procedures and can’t guarantee the outcome.

Subject to completion of the changes, the county has a deal to pay $1.1 million for approximately 346 acres and $438,000 for the right to 553 acre-feet a year of surface water from Mica Peak.

The county needs the water to make its $42 million wetland project work, but Morrison can’t continue to farm without it. Instead, land-use changes spelled out in the contract would let him subdivide the remainder of his land.

“In reality, you’re taking our whole ranch,” Morrison said. “If the contract derails, the whole thing falls apart. The contingencies are critically important.”

Transferring development rights would allow the 69-year-old rancher to build 34 more houses than otherwise would have been permitted – and without waiting years for the area to be designated for urban development.

If the county buys more of Morrison’s land, he could transfer additional development rights – up to 42 homes.

County Planning Director John Pederson said rights are transferred in some Western Washington counties to preserve open space in exchange for denser development elsewhere. A property can never be developed if its development rights are transferred to another property.

The properties don’t have to be contiguous or under common ownership.

Under the county’s deal with Morrison, a string of dominoes must fall for him to achieve the housing density he wants. Commissioners also must change the zoning on the 346 acres they purchased as well as on the 212 Morrison wants to develop.

The proposed rights-transfer ordinance started out broader, but was narrowed to serve only publicly owned projects.

Planning Commissioner Jack Miller expressed concern last month about the potential for increasing densities in rural areas.

Planner Steve Davenport said the planning staff shared that concern. He recommended narrowing the focus to allow more time for public review of a more comprehensive ordinance.

The current draft limits development-rights transfers to publicly owned wastewater or stormwater projects on at least 40 acres, in one of five land-use designations: large-tract agricultural, small-tract agricultural, forest land, rural traditional and rural conservation.

Even before the ordinance was narrowed, Planning Commissioner Anthony Carollo objected to changing public policy for the benefit of one person. But Pederson said accommodations sometimes are necessary for public facilities.

The county Planning Commission will review the development-rights transfer proposal in a public workshop session at 9 a.m. Thursday.

Also, the commission will conduct a public hearing Sept. 16 on the proposed comprehensive plan and zone changes. Several unrelated zoning proposals also are on the agenda.

Both sessions will be in the basement hearing room of the county Public Works Building, 1026 W. Broadway Ave., next to the county courthouse.

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