Spokane Valley public works director Neil Kersten, with microphone, addresses the Spokane Valley City Council retreat/workshop on Tuesday.bartr@spokesman.com (J. BART RAYNIAK)
Spokane Valley public works director Neil Kersten, with microphone, addresses the Spokane Valley City Council retreat/workshop on Tuesday.bartr@spokesman.com (J. BART RAYNIAK)

Zoning rollback sought

Plan would return Valley to 2003 commercial rules

The new Spokane Valley City Council not only wants to look at eliminating the controversial Sprague/Appleway Revitalization Plan, but appears poised to return zoning laws to 2003, when the newly incorporated city copied zoning maps put in effect by Spokane County.

The council’s winter retreat Tuesday started with an hour-long presentation by City Attorney Mike Connelly and planning division manager Greg McCormick on the history of zoning and Comprehensive Plan amendments enacted by the city since its formation. Connelly emphasized that the city is bound by certain state regulations and procedures in making any changes.

After the presentation, council member Dean Grafos read a five-page statement strenuously opposing the zoning changes made in SARP and calling for the zoning rollbacks. Grafos said he wants the city attorney to prepare a motion to impose “an immediate moratorium on the adoptions and enforcement provisions of the SARP now in effect.”

The city passed its own Comprehensive Plan and zoning maps in 2007, and Grafos called for the city to “return to the city zoning entitlements in place prior to the first citywide downzone approved by the council in 2007.” This would allow the city to return “to the interim zoning in effect at the time of city incorporation.”

Grafos said he only wanted to roll back the zoning on commercial properties. “This shall not affect residential properties,” he said.

Grafos said that the previous City Council listened only to people in the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Spokane Valley Business Association in approving the SARP, not “the real community.” He said the zoning changes made in the new plan are too restrictive. As evidence he handed out copies of 12 letters from local developers and business owners, some of whom complained about lack of freedom with their land.

Of the 12, seven were from businesses and business owners who contributed money to Grafos’ campaign and the campaigns of some of the other “Positive Change” candidates.

Two of the letters were from Brad Pring, president of the Pring Corporation. Pring is the son of retired car dealership owner Jack Pring. The elder Pring donated $1,250 each to Mayor Tom Towey, council members Gary Schimmels and Brenda Grassel, as well as $500 to Grafos. Crown West Realty, which sent one letter, donated $500 each to Grafos and Schimmels. Jim Bonuccelli, owner of Village Square Realty, donated $250 to Grafos and $500 to Towey.

As part of his justification for rolling back the city’s commercial zoning, Grafos also pointed out that the city has seen a drop in new construction building permits from 555 in 2008 to 343 in 2009, for a total reduction of 212 permits. But the reduction in the number of permits is directly related to the drop in new home construction, not commercial construction. In 2008 the city granted 388 permits for new homes, duplexes and apartment buildings. In 2009 there were only 176 permits in those residential categories. The difference between the two numbers is also 212.

Spokane Valley is not alone in seeing such a loss. The economic downturn has also led to drops in new construction permits in Spokane and Spokane County. In 2009 the city of Spokane approved 473 new construction permits compared to 507 in 2008. Spokane County approved 1,000 new construction permits in 2009 compared to 1,316 in 2008. In both jurisdictions the majority of permits granted were for single-family homes and residential garages/carports, and it was those categories that saw the largest reductions.

Two of the council’s veteran members did not seem to welcome the idea of returning to 2003 zoning. “What we need to do is discuss with each other and not talk at each other,” said council member Bill Gothmann. “What Mr. Grafos needs to do is go to the appropriate authority and allow them to deal with the problem.”

Gothmann pointed out that zoning issues need to go through the city’s planning commission first. “Let us sit down and put down on a sheet of paper the problems,” he said. “Mr. Grafos is identifying the solution before identifying the problem.”

Council member Rose Dempsey said city staff and the council need time to study such a proposal. “We need to talk with each other and find out where we’re actually going.”

Newer members of the council elected with Grafos seemed more receptive to the idea. Grassel agreed that the drop in the number of building permits is a problem and said business owners should be allowed to do what they want. Towey said the city needs to “take out the stumbling blocks” facing businesses. “We have to take a deep breath,” he said. “We have to stop what we’re doing.”

Grafos said removing zoning restrictions is essential to spur economic activity and create jobs. “What I’m saying is, let’s stop what we’re doing and let the free market take over,” he said. “Let’s suspend the rules and see what happens with private enterprise.”

Dempsey again advised caution. “First, whatever we do, we do no harm,” she said. “This is why we have to do this in an orderly fashion.”

Acting City Manager Mike Jackson said he would need a couple of weeks to “lay this problem out carefully” and would probably need to have the council look at the issue during several different meetings. “We want to make sure we make that decision legally,” he said.

Grafos suggested taking a vote during the retreat on whether to move ahead with his proposed motion, but Connelly pointed out that a vote could not be held because in the meeting notice the city sent out about the retreat it was not indicated that the council would take any action.

Dempsey said the council needed to get comments from the public before proceeding. “They need to know what’s going on,” she said.

Another issue sure to come up is what unintended consequences would result from such a zoning rollback, particularly if the changes end up affecting residential areas. The city’s Comprehensive Plan passed in 2007 directly affected the Ponderosa and Rockford Acres neighborhoods. Spokane County code adopted by the city on an interim basis in 2003 allowed up to seven homes per acre in those areas. The city held those rules at bay by adopting an ordinance limiting development in those areas every year until the limits were made permanent by the 2007 Comprehensive Plan and zoning map.

A complete citywide zoning rollback would also undo an ordinance passed in 2005 that rezoned an area of the Greenacres neighborhood from seven homes per acre to 3.5 homes per acre. The ordinance went through after residents of the area complained and pushed hard for the change in zoning.

In a later interview, Grafos said he doesn’t intend for his plan to affect those residential areas. He said he has been a longtime Ponderosa resident and knows of the neighborhood’s limited access issues. “I’m well aware of the problems in Ponderosa,” he said.

In other business, the council discussed whether to continue what the city calls its “paveback” program. For the past several years Spokane County has been installing sewers in the city. The county pays to repave the street above the trench they dig, but the city has previously paid to pave the rest of the street as well so streets are not patched together and will last longer. “We end up with a brand new street,” said public works director Neil Kersten.

The full-width paving has also been beneficial because many of the streets dug up to put in sewers have been old and in poor repair and needed to be replaced anyway. The issue is that the former City Council did not add the item into the 2010 budget. The council also needs to decide whether to repave the street with 3 inches of asphalt as called for in new street standards adopted last year or continue to use 2 inches of asphalt as the city has in the past.

The thicker asphalt lasts longer and is also thick enough to allow grind and overlay repairs, Kersten said. A street with 2 inches of asphalt cannot to ground down but must be completely replaced, which is more expensive. “If you have to tear the road out and start over, you’re shut down for months,” he said.

The Corbin, Cronk, south Greenacres and West Farms neighborhoods are scheduled for construction this summer. The estimated cost is $1.8 million if the city uses the old standards, $2.5 million if the new 3-inch standard is used. Gothmann advocated going with the new standards even though it would cost more up front. “The real question is do we want to invest now and avoid a larger cost in the future,” he said.

Spokane County has notified the city that following the new paving standards would cost it $900,000, which it would recoup by charging each resident an additional $950 to hook up to the sewer. That number gave some council members pause. Grafos recommended staying with the old standards. “Do not charge the customers another $950,” he said.

Schimmels and Grassel said that the city should just continue with the old standards it has been using for the sewer projects. “We don’t want to overcharge those customers,” Schimmels said. “We set the tone four years ago. We shouldn’t deviate from that.”

The city could take the money to pay for the full width paving program from the City Facilities Fund, said finance director Ken Thompson. “There are really only a few places we can go to get that kind of money,” he said.

Thompson also presented a financial forecast through 2014. If the city makes no changes there will be an estimated budget deficit of $13 million by 2014, he said. In order to avoid the deficits, Thompson said the city could take $1 million year from reserves beginning in 2011. He also proposed having all departments make do with a 3 percent cut in their funding, which would add an additional $1 million a year to the general fund. The city could also eliminate a $500,000 contingency fund it has included in the budget every year to cover emergencies. “We’ve never spent it,” he said.

Another concern is trying to limit the annual increase in costs that commonly occurs with contracts the city has with Spokane County to provide police and court services. “That’s going to be critical,” he said.

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