Spokane officials are crafting new land-use rules for the West Plains in hopes of protecting the future of Spokane International Airport.
On Jan. 1, Spokane will annex 10 square miles on the West Plains, including the airport, in what will be the largest expansion of city limits in more than a century.
Most land-use rules won’t change from the current Spokane County zoning, but city planners are proposing to adopt state recommendations that add an “ airway overlay zone” restricting new residential zoning within 6,000 feet of current and proposed runways.
The new airway zone would allow property owners to develop according to current rules, but they couldn’t rezone their land to allow denser residential development.
“If you are zoned for residential today in that area, it’s OK to develop,” said City Planning Louis Meuler. “We don’t want to see new zoning that allows for denser residential.”
Building rules surrounding the airport and Fairchild Air Force Base got renewed attention in the last decade following a Spokane County administrator’s decision granting permission to place a day care center near the end of a proposed runway. County commissioners also faced significant criticism from airport and some business leaders for voting to allow residential construction near the airport. Opponents of the change argued that residential growth could endanger the air base and make airport expansion extremely costly. Commissioners later reversed their decision.
“Encroachment is the poison word for Air Force bases,” said Council President Joe Shogan at a hearing last month. “This is serious stuff. It’s not just mundane lines on a map.”
But at least some property owners argue that the city’s proposed airway overlay zone goes too far.
Developer Pete Thompson told the City Council that while he’s supportive of the strict rules immediately adjacent to runways, the new overlay zone is extreme. He notes that the zone extends south of Interstate 90. He and others have long argued that there’s a glut of light industrial-zoned land on the West Plains and elsewhere and that leaders should allow more diverse development options.
“What we don’t want to see happen is the unintended consequences of being so restrictive that we can’t move forward to get some kind of good tax base and employment going out there,” Thompson said.
Al Payne, a landowner and developer, said crashes have been extremely rare at the airport.
“Somehow residential has been demonized,” Payne said. “What the staff wanted to do is give the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) everything they’ve ever dreamed of.”
Meuler said the zones were crafted to protect the public from crashes and from noise. The zones are shaped to include areas where low-flying planes circle the airport. Residents who move near runways often complain about noise, creating pressures on an airport that could restrict future growth.
Although zoning in the overlay areas couldn’t be changed to allow more homes or apartments, other growth is encouraged, including offices, hotels, warehouses and other light industrial uses, Meuler said.
Much of the land affected by the overlay will remain outside city limits even after next year’s annexation. But developers say they’re concerned that the property will someday be annexed or the county could be pressured to also adopt the state recommendations.
Along with the new rules for Spokane International Airport, the council will consider the addition of similar “airfield overlay zones” around Felts Field.
Mueler said most of the land around Felts is zoned industrial, but there are some older homes nearby.
“Ideally it wouldn’t be located there, but since it does, we’ll try to accommodate that in the regulations,” Meuler said.