April 30, 2011 in City

New zoning rules met with surprise, anger

Mayor apologizes for city’s poor outreach to residents
By The Spokesman-Review
Among the changes

The Spokane City Council this week approved a series of changes to city zoning rules, including:

• Allow sinks and toilets to be installed in garages. They hadn’t been allowed to be installed since 2006.

• Allow churches and schools in residentially zoned areas to build steeples or other structures up to 52  ½ feet tall. The limit had been 38 feet.

• Allow construction of greenhouses, sheds and some other kinds of structures within the 3- or 5-foot setback from the property line in side yards with written permission from the affected neighbor. Until the change, that ability only existed for garages.

• Allow duplexes and multifamily buildings in single-family zones to be rebuilt and used under grandfathered rules in the event of destruction caused by fire or other catastrophic event.

• Allow veterinarian offices to have a kennel to board animals for observation in a soundproof building without obtaining a conditional-use permit.

A series of zoning rules, many routine, have reignited the anger of opponents of the planned new Jefferson school on Spokane’s South Hill and forced Mayor Mary Verner to apologize for how the changes were shepherded through the legislative process.

The Spokane City Council this week unanimously approved most of the rules, but held off on one of the most controversial ideas, an ordinance that would make it easier for elementary and junior high schools to build larger parking lots. Current city law says those schools need to obtain a variance for parking lots with more than 1  1/2 parking spaces per classroom. Spokane Public Schools officials have requested to raise the standard to 2  1/2 per classroom.

The different standard could make it easier for Spokane Public Schools to put more parking next to schools on land that some homeowners would prefer remain vacant.

Greg Brown, capital projects director for Spokane Public Schools, said school officials were unaware that a maximum for parking spaces was set in 2006 until three years later – after officials began plans to build or remodel four elementary schools as part of a voter-approved bond program.

Most of the district’s elementary schools have about 25 classrooms with about 50 staff members, he said. Under the rule approved in 2006, the district could build only about 38 parking spaces for those schools without getting a variance.

“These are actual employees who need a space to park,” he said, adding that current law leaves few or no spaces for visitors and parent volunteers.

But opponents argue that the plan would make it easier for the district to pave over public open spaces.

The proposal especially concerns opponents of the district-approved plan to build a new Jefferson school on the west end of Hart Field.

Ann Bergeman, secretary of Families of Manito, said the current rules on school parking give neighborhoods a bigger voice. Families of Manito is a neighborhood group that is fighting the expansion of the parking lot of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and opposes the plan for a new Jefferson school. She said maintaining the current school parking standards would still allow the school district to build extra stalls if the city hearing examiner agrees after holding a public hearing.

Capping the number of parking spaces at 1  1/2 per classroom “is perfectly fine in most areas,” Bergeman said. “Other neighborhoods that may not be historic may be perfectly fine with that much asphalt.”

Review under way for more than a year

City officials have been reviewing for more than a year changes in its zoning rules that they say are mostly routine. The Plan Commission also reviewed them and recommended approval earlier this year.

Some neighborhood leaders have argued that they didn’t realize the proposals were under consideration because there were dozens of changes, which appeared on agendas under bureaucratic language that couldn’t be understood by the average citizen.

“In order for any citizen or neighborhood group to effect change, we would need to attend every single Plan Commission workshop and meeting, which is an unreasonable and arduous standard,” said a letter to the City Council from Neighbors4Neighborhoods, a coalition of neighborhood groups in Spokane, including Families of Manito.

Verner recently told the council that her administration will review and propose changes for informing neighborhoods about proposed zoning rules.

“It recently came to my attention that we had fallen down on the job with regard to communicating with our neighborhoods on these important land-use code changes,” Verner said when addressing the council.

Neighborhood groups demand investigation

Neighbors4Neighborhoods also is demanding a city investigation into a proposed change that was inserted into the zoning proposals after the Spokane Plan Commission reviewed them.

“We find this breach of trust to be egregious,” the group said in a letter to the City Council.

The change would have amended language calling for certain kinds of conditional-use permits to be considered in a quasi-judicial process and decided by a department director. Assistant City Attorney James Richman said he recommended that the quasi-judicial language be removed from the rules because other parts of zoning rules say quasi-judicial decisions can be made only by the hearing examiner.

“We do not believe that this proposed amendment represents a substantive change in the code or a departure from the city’s practices,” Richman said.

The language related to conditional-use permits has been at issue in the city’s decision to allow the expansion of St. Mark’s parking lot. Families of Manito has filed a lawsuit over the issue.

“James has not been subversive and malicious, but he was a little bit tone deaf and insensitive to neighborhood concerns,” Verner told the City Council last week just before Richman offered his own apology to the council for the “confusion and misunderstanding.”

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