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Court favors further study for Ponderosa

Traffic heads into and out of the Ponderosa area via Bowdish Road, one of only two ways to access the neighborhood,  on Tuesday.  (Jesse Tinsley)
Traffic heads into and out of the Ponderosa area via Bowdish Road, one of only two ways to access the neighborhood, on Tuesday. (Jesse Tinsley)

Neighbors’ evacuation concerns prompted appeal

An appellate court says Spokane Valley’s hearing examiner was right to rein in development in the fire-prone Ponderosa neighborhood.

Hearing Examiner Michael Dempsey’s decision to require an environmental impact study of fire evacuation issues was “well-founded in both fact and law,” the Washington Court of Appeals ruled late last week.

Now the Ponderosa Neighborhood Association, which mounted the appeal, wants county officials to extend the decision to another Ponderosa-area subdivision.

The ruling applies to developer Lanzce Douglass’ Ponderosa Planned Unit Development plans for 81 single-family homes on 17 acres along the south side of 44th Avenue, west of Farr Road.

That project is at the edge of Spokane Valley. Just across the city boundary, at the southeast corner of 44th Avenue and Schafer Branch Road in unincorporated Spokane County, Douglass plans to build a 100-home, 28-acre project called Ponderosa Ridge.

Ponderosa Ridge relies on the same traffic study as Ponderosa PUD.

Dempsey, who is also Spokane County’s hearing examiner, approved Ponderosa Ridge in August 2005 – before he received the traffic study data that changed his mind.

The Court of Appeals upheld Dempsey’s Ponderosa Ridge decision. The January 2009 appellate ruling became final when no one petitioned the state Supreme Court for review.

Last week’s Ponderosa PUD ruling doesn’t directly affect Ponderosa Ridge. However, state law says the county shall withdraw its declaration of environmental nonsignificance if it was obtained through “misrepresentation or lack of material disclosure.”

The law also applies if there is “significant new information” about “probable significant adverse environmental impacts.”

Last week’s decision provides such evidence, according the Ponderosa Neighborhood Association. Spokane County must start over on Ponderosa Ridge, association attorney David Mann said in a letter Monday to county officials.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Hubert, who advises the county Building and Planning Department, said he’ll need a few weeks to study the issue.

Meanwhile, Douglass is free to proceed on Ponderosa Ridge, for which site preparation recently began.

A three-judge appellate panel said Dempsey properly concluded, based on his own analysis, that a traffic study significantly understated the difficulty of evacuating the three-square-mile neighborhood with only two exits.

The court said Dempsey used the same statistics and computer software as Whipple Consulting Engineers, the Spokane Valley company that prepared the traffic study.

Neither company President Todd Whipple nor Douglass responded to requests for comment.

“The neighborhood is ecstatic,” said Janice Cooperstein, a member of the Ponderosa Neighborhood Association board. “It’s a public safety issue. We’re an island surrounded by railroad tracks and mountains, and the only way out right now is two roads.”

The two exits are where Schafer and Bowdish roads intersect Dishman-Mica Road.

Cooperstein cited the 2008 Valleyview fire that destroyed 11 Ponderosa-area homes and the 1991 “firestorm” that burned 14 homes and threatened 105. Firestorm flames reached the first home 30 minutes after residents were told to evacuate.

Dempsey discovered that the Whipple traffic analysis – which said the neighborhood could be evacuated in 30 minutes – was based on “ideal conditions.”

It made no allowance for snarls such as stalled vehicles, traffic accidents, smoke-reduced visibility or downed trees, Dempsey said.

Even with emergency personnel controlling intersections, Dempsey found only 20 percent of the existing 1,281 homes could be evacuated in 30 minutes. His analysis was sound, according to the Court of Appeals.

The court reversed Superior Court Judge Greg Sypolt’s decision in December 2008 that Dempsey was wrong to require more study of fire-evacuation issues.

Dempsey said Spokane Valley planners incorrectly decided Ponderosa PUD would have no significant environmental effect except for archaeological issues.

Less than a month after Sypolt’s decision, Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor issued an opposite ruling in a nearly identical case.

O’Connor’s decision involved developer Bryan Walker’s proposed 45-lot Ponderosa Estates North subdivision on 15.2 acres at 3310 S. Ridgeview Drive.

In October, Walker dropped his appeal of O’Connor’s ruling. He said he wants to redesign his project to satisfy neighborhood and fire district concerns.

“At some point in time, there will be solutions to this problem, and right now we’ve just decided to wait,” Walker said.

He said a third access road could be routed across his property, but it would require the cooperation of other landowners.

“This is the perfect storm for a third access, and we’re willing to build most of it,” he said.