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Council vote kills St. John Vianney project

Thu., July 28, 2011

A group of vocal and passionate neighbors got their message across to the Spokane Valley City Council Tuesday. The council voted 5-1 to not advance a proposed comprehensive plan amendment containing a zone change request made by St. John Vianney Church, effectively killing the amendment.

Councilman Gary Schimmels was the only one to vote in favor of the amendment. Councilman Arne Woodard again recused himself from the discussion and vote because of his previous vote on the issue when he was on the Planning Commission.

The church had purchased a piece of property to the south of the church parking lot that was zoned medium density residential. It applied to combine that parcel with the parking lot parcel, which was zoned low density residential, and make the new, larger parcel medium density residential. The plan was to have Catholic Charities build a 40-unit, low-income senior housing complex.

Neighbors objected loudly and frequently from the beginning. They complained of increased traffic, lowered property values and the size of the proposed building. They worried about stormwater, sewage capacity and parking. Some also said they worried about an increase in crime.

The Planning Commission voted to recommend denial of the zone change because the proposed project didn’t fit in with the neighborhood, which features single-family homes on one acre lots. Many of the council members who voted against the zone change Tuesday expressed the same concerns.

“This is a contentious issue,” said Councilman Dean Grafos as he read from a prepared statement. He said putting a building nearly the size of a football field on the property is “just not appropriate for this neighborhood.”

The project is incompatible with the neighborhood, which doesn’t have sidewalks to allow the senior residents to get access to bus lines or shopping, said Councilman Bill Gothmann. He fought a similar battle to keep his Ponderosa neighborhood from being zoned to allow greater density, Gothmann said. Catholic Charities does a “marvelous” job with its senior housing, he said. “This is the wrong place for this kind of housing.”

Councilwoman Brenda Grassel said her opinion was similar. “It’s unfortunate that this particular project got off on the wrong foot,” she said.

Mayor Tom Towey said it was a difficult and emotional issue. “I’ve lost some sleep over it,” he said. “I think both sides have been extremely vocal in telling us their side of the story. Both sides have valid points.”

“I do not like zoning, but here I sit,” said Schimmels. The area near the church used to have a cattle ranch and a dog pound, but zoning and uses are constantly changing, he said. Schimmels said his family used to develop neighborhoods and he doesn’t agree with those who argue “not in my backyard.”

“NIMBY’s should go away, because how did you get to where you live today?” he said.

Before councilmembers voted, they got another earful of public comment that lasted well over an hour. Resident Dave Fode said he worried the project would impact his property values. “I just feel this is a revenue center for the church,” he said.

Levi Strauss said it was “unethical” to try to change the zoning with the majority of the neighbors opposed to it. “Truly this development is in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.

Catholic Charities executive director Rob McCann said his organization builds high quality complexes that are well-maintained. “Our communities do not become blights,” he said. They’re the jewel of their neighborhoods. We are not slumlords. We don’t build things and forget about them.”

Resident Shelly Stevens said that St. John Vianney previously presented a petition signed by 350 members. She said she believes the number of signatures indicate church members don’t really support the project. “I think they’re being railroaded by Catholic Charities,” she said.

St. John Vianney parish council chairwoman Marie Raschko-Sokol said that some of the church’s 600 members don’t support the project. “We have a majority of people who are in favor of it,” she said.

The church bought the new property two years ago in order to build low-income senior housing and brought in Catholic Charities as a partner, she said. “We cannot do it on our own,” she said. “We don’t have the resources available. There is no financial gain whatsoever for our church.”

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