A feud is simmering on tree-lined Walnut Road just north of Sprague Avenue.
On one side is St. John Vianney Roman Catholic Church, which wants to rezone property it owns from low density residential to medium density residential so Catholic Charities can put in a 38- to 40-unit low-income senior housing complex. On the other side are neighbors vocally opposed to any rezone.
The Spokane Valley Planning Commission recommended that the rezone request be denied because it didn’t fit in with the residential neighborhood. The issue went before the City Council for a final decision, but the council voted to allow time for a developer’s agreement to be negotiated between the neighbors and the property owner which would create restrictions on how the land is developed.
That debate has gotten heated and emotional. During planning commission and city council meetings, neighbors have gathered in large numbers. They said they are afraid of more traffic, increased crime and a decline in their property values. Concerns were also expressed about the size of the proposed complex and whether it would remain senior housing.
But recently city staff announced that neighbors had pulled out of the discussions. Numerous neighbors contacted since then either refused to comment or did not return phone calls. Shelly Stevens, who has helped organized the protest against the zone change, left a short voicemail message explaining the change. “The neighborhood is not negotiating,” she said. “We will not compromise. We are fighting the rezone 100 percent.” She later declined to comment further.
During the March 10 Planning Commission meeting, resident Tim Bieber discussed his concerns about traffic from residents and employees of the proposed complex. “They have children who will come to visit them,” he said. “That’s more traffic. Don’t we get a vote? Is it over for our community? Don’t turn this into felony flats. That’s all we’re asking.”
“What guarantee do we have that this property somewhere down the line doesn’t change hands?” said resident Kelly Clinger at the April 12 city council meeting.
“We just feel like we’re getting steamrolled,” said resident Michael Smith at the same meeting. “I do not need an institution in my front yard.”
Levi Strauss said his neighborhood is quiet, friendly and parklike. “We have drastic fears our neighborhood will lose its charms,” he said. “We fear traffic will increase. We fear crime will increase.”
Green signs have sprouted on lawns like mushrooms after a heavy rain. The signs start about a half block north of Sprague, right next to an apartment complex. Nearly every yard on Walnut has one and several have two or three. “Wrong place wrong time.” “Save our neighborhood.” “No means no.” “No re-zone.” The signs also spill over onto Broadway, Herald, Valleyway and Farr roads.
Catholic Charities Executive Director Rob McCann said his organization had one meeting with the neighbors, which he said he thought went “extremely well” but declined to give specifics. A second meeting was scheduled, but neighbors called to cancel it. McCann said he is still committed to creating a developer’s agreement even though the neighbors have pulled out of the process.
“We are working with the city of Spokane Valley to continue this project,” he said. “We’re still going to go ahead with the development agreement even though we don’t have to. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the good, neighborly thing to do.”
Some of the neighbors have banded together to hire attorney Mark Vovos. Vovos said he was not present at the meeting with Catholic Charities, but several times called it a “didactic presentation.”
“Negotiations are tough in cases like this when emotions are involved,” he said. “Negotiations require two to talk.”
Vovos said he’s not sure if the neighbors are considering a lawsuit over the project. “I guess we just have to see how it plays out,” he said.
McCann said he’s still willing to work with the neighbors. “We hope to restart that dialogue in the future,” he said. “Even if the neighbors don’t want to talk to us, we are always happy to talk with them.”