May 19, 2010 in City

Spokane Valley council puts zoning on endangered list

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The new members of the Spokane Valley City Council – a majority that’s been in office less than a year – have a lot of questions.

Is the Spokane River polluted? Really? Can you prove it? Did the public have a chance to weigh in on the new Spokane Valley zoning rules? Really? The “legitimate” public?

Why should the city manager have any government experience? Isn’t it “extreme” to ask business owners not to build big fences that block drivers’ views at intersections? To demand they follow the sign code? Shouldn’t we just get rid of all zoning? What are you – business-unfriendly?

Council member Brenda Grassel has been asking the city staff for proof that the river is polluted. “Could we get their documentation on this?” she asked.

You mean the documentation from 1984? Or 1996? Or 2010? The 1999 study of the movement of river metals into the aquifer? The 2001 study that found the level of PCBs was the highest of any state waterway? The EPA’s listing of the river as an “impaired waterway”? How about the Health Department’s warnings not to eat too much fish from the river because of high levels of PCBs and lead? I stopped counting the “documentation” from the Department of Ecology, honestly, because those reports are boring, and there are so very, very many of them.

And that is just one piece of low-hanging fruit on the tree of Positive Change – the slogan uniting Grassel, Dean Grafos, Bob McCaslin, Tom Towey and Gary Schimmels. Their biggest goal is undoing the city’s zoning; they ran against the rules, and they won. Their theme is that there hasn’t been a chance for true public input, especially when it comes to the controversial rezoning of the Sprague/Appleway couplet.

Well, let’s see. Some 80 public meetings were held on the Sprague/Appleway plan over three years, according to a city “public participation log.” Thousands of fliers were sent to property owners in advance of hearings. E-mails and postcards. Coverage in the media.

“They met at churches. They met at restaurants. They met anywhere people gathered,” said John G. Carroll, chairman of the planning commission and a member of that body since the city incorporated in 2003.

One suspects the Gang of Five isn’t really that interested in public input, or they might have gathered some before hustling the city manager out the door at their very first meeting – a plan they hatched informally and with virtually no public notice.

They live in a free-market fantasia, perhaps best summarized by Grafos, speaking at the council retreat earlier this year: “What I’m saying is, let’s stop what we’re doing and let the free market take over. Let’s suspend the rules and see what happens with private enterprise.”

I’ll bet I can guess: Spokane Valley will flourish. It will no longer be an asphalt plain with the highest business vacancy rate in the county, a mattress store on every corner and a “Die, Pedestrian, Die” vibe. Secondhand stores will spring up everywhere, businesses will build their fences to the clouds, and all will be well.

Grassel says my view of this is distorted. She supports “common-sense” zoning that sets out guidelines for buildings, signs, landscaping, but opposes more specific strictures on what types of businesses can be located where. She says that putting “mixed-use” rules on Sprague/Appleway – the zoning equivalent of trying to create walkable neighborhoods – is akin to doing the same thing on Division.

She tells a persuasive story about a business owner who wants to open a coffee shop on a side street off Sprague. The shop would be allowed on Sprague, but not on the side street. Seeking a variance would be expensive and time-consuming, she said.

“We’re not saying throw all zoning out,” she insists. “What we’re trying to accomplish here is to make this a business-friendly city. … At the end of the day, planners have to get inside the mind of a business owner and really walk in their shoes.”

Carroll does walk in the shoes of a business owner – he co-owns a commercial cleaning service in the valley. A 65-year-old retired Air Force major, he has worked on the city’s comprehensive plan since Spokane Valley incorporated in 2003. He’s sat through the meetings. Listened to the public. He is no government control freak. “I’m definitely not a liberal,” he said.

He’s not a rabble-rouser, either, and he chooses his words carefully. He thinks efforts to undo all that work on zoning regulations will only make it hard for business owners to know what to expect in Spokane Valley.

He thinks the anything-goes, planning-free environment has already been tried in the Valley – remember all those years before incorporation? – and here’s what the city has to show for it: a business vacancy rate that’s 50 percent higher than the rest of the county.

“A plan is a basis for decisions,” Carroll said. “If you have no plan, how do you know where you’re going to go?”

It’s a good question. It’s one that a city – a real city, not just an area with a boundary – eventually has to answer.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com.


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