A Spokane County judge has issued a letter of opinion stating he doesn’t see anything wrong with Shoreline Management Act exemptions the city of Spokane Valley granted for the installation of two docks in the Coyote Rocks development.
The lawsuit filed against the city by the Washington State Department of Ecology alleged that the exemptions were improperly granted because they are meant to increase the resale value of two “spec” homes and not requested by a resident as is required. The lawsuit also argued that the stated plans of developer Cliff Mort, president of Coeur d’Alene-based Neighborhood Inc., to install 30 docks in the development would “cause substantial damage to the shoreline environment.”
In his letter, Judge Sam Cozza wrote that the docks are for “private, noncommercial use” and the fact that the developer made the request “does not invalidate the exemption.” He also wrote that he cannot consider “the speculative possibility of future additional docks” in the area. “Those applications will have to be considered based on specific evidence of environmental significance or nonsignificance at the time.”
After the lawsuit was filed three local environmental organizations, including Spokane Riverkeeper, joined the suit on the side of the Department of Ecology. Attorney Rick Eichstaedt, who represents Riverkeeper, said he plans to appeal Cozza’s decision. “Our inclination in reading his decision is that it’s wrong,” he said.
Eichstaedt said his organization has tried unsuccessfully to work out some sort of compromise with the city and Mort. “This is a largely undisturbed section of shoreline,” he said. “We need to do things to protect our fish habitat. This is going to impact everybody. You need healthy shorelines to provide shade for fish to help cool the river in the summer. They help provide habitat for bugs, which fish eat. To have a healthy river you need a healthy shoreline.”
He also takes exception to the judge’s decision that he can’t consider effects of future docks. “This is part of a plan,” he said. “Everyone knows they want to put in 30 docks. We can’t hide our heads in the sand and pretend there aren’t going to be 30 docks. The judge’s decision was very wrong on the cumulative effects. Otherwise this river could suffer the death of a thousand pinpricks.”
The two docks at the heart of the lawsuit have a somewhat sketchy history. The Department of Fish and Wildlife granted approval for installation of one dock in the river on Jan. 20, 2010, but stipulated that it could only be done between the dates of June 16 and Aug. 31 to protect spawning fish.
Fish and Wildlife area habitat biologist Jeff Lawlor said that the first dock was installed sometime around the end of January or beginning of February. At the same time the second dock was put in the water and chained to a tree, but not installed.
The city granted a Shoreline Management Act exemption for the first dock on April 21, well after it was in the river. The second exemption was granted July 7. In both cases an environmental checklist, signed by Mort, said the docks would be floated up the river from the Upriver Dam.
Lawlor found and photographed evidence that a tractor of some sort hauled the docks from the development, down the shore and into the river. The heavy equipment left tracks and crushed trees and other vegetation in its wake. The damage was a violation of the city’s Shoreline Ordinance.
The Department of Ecology issued a notice of correction for the installation of the first dock on Feb. 26. The notice stated that the property owner had 15 days to create a plan to restore the site, with the work to be complete within 90 days.
“I am not aware of any restoration that has taken place,” said Mike Maher, eastern region shore lands compliance coordinator with the Department of Ecology. “They have notified us that they have developed a habitat management plan, which they believe demonstrates their good intentions. It’s the kind of thing we would certainly want to work with the property owner to develop when the time is right. It’s not appropriate to discuss it now, because they’ve got docks in that we believe are illegal and we have to deal with that first.”
Maher said Ecology hasn’t yet taken formal action on the correction notice because of the court case. “Before we took any type of formal action, the permits or exemptions were issued,” he said. “Once this issue is resolved, we will continue to pursue restoration.”
He also expressed concern about when the exemptions were granted. “There are after-the-fact permits that are issued,” he said. “There’s not the up front review that is required.”
Lawlor said he agrees with the arguments the Department of Ecology made in its lawsuit. “Shoreline rules are designed to prevent speculative building,” he said. “It’s not until you have a single family residence that you have an exemption. They were going around the rules.”
Lawlor said he visited the site this summer after the second dock was installed. He said the first dock that had been put in showed damage caused by high water in the spring. The ramp leading to the dock had torqued until it was completely upside down.
“I think they’re going to have troubles with those docks,” he said, noting that it appeared the first one almost floated off its moorings.
While he was on site Lawlor also noticed that someone had sprayed vegetation on the shoreline with weed killer, also a violation of the Shoreline ordinance. “This was just in front of the first home that was built, not systematic down the shoreline,” he said. His agency does not have jurisdiction over the shoreline, however, so Lawlor said he took photos of the damage and forwarded the information to the Department of Ecology.
Maher said he met with the city’s code enforcement department about the complaint. “We visited the site and discussed what could or couldn’t be done,” he said. “We more told them not to do anything else rather than restore the area.” He will monitor the location and see how much restoration will occur naturally before deciding on any further action, he said.