A large group of impassioned residents descended on the Spokane Valley Planning Commission meeting last week to speak for and against a proposed zone change for a parcel of land immediately to the south of St. John Vianney Catholic Church at 503 N. Walnut Road.
The church is seeking to have the zoning changed from low density residential to medium density residential so that Catholic Charities can build a 40-unit complex for low-income senior citizens. After listening to the testimony, the planning commissioners voted to recommend to the City Council that the zone change be denied, a move that was met by applause from the audience.
Resident Shelly Stevens said she held a neighborhood meeting at her house that was attended by 100 people against the project. Representatives from the church were welcomed inside, but Stevens said she asked them to go when they began to criticize how she had gotten the word out about her meeting. “Their behavior was unacceptable,” she said. “We asked them to leave.”
Stevens said she was worried about the impact such a building would have on the neighborhood. “If my children went to St. John Vianney School, I wouldn’t want them playing with a low-income renter,” she said. “I don’t want them interacting with my children.”
Resident Tim Bieber said he was concerned about the amount of traffic the complex would generate. “Don’t we get a vote?” he said. “Is it over? Is it over for the democratic way? We just want to be heard. Don’t turn this into felony flats. That’s all we’re asking.”
Several other neighborhood residents expressed concern about the traffic generated by the church school and the nearby Winco and said the neighborhood can’t handle more. They pointed to narrow roads and no sidewalks in the area. “It will increase traffic,” Sandy Holder said. “They say it won’t, but it will.”
Many also said the neighborhood is entirely single-family residential homes and a multi-story apartment complex would not fit in. “I’ll be right next to this, said Jeff Westensee. “I do not like this.”
But the zone change was not without its supporters, many of whom identified themselves as members of the church and also live in the neighborhood. It’s not just a simple apartment complex, said Bill Zimmer. “This development is so much more than that,” he said. “I truly believe this project will be an asset to this community.”
Mavourneen Daspit said the church already operates a food bank and gives people money to help them get by. “I see a need for low-income housing in this neighborhood,” she said.
Robert McCann, Catholic Charities executive director, said people should look at other facilities run by Catholic Charities to see how they fit in to the neighborhoods and how well they are run. All residents, staff members and volunteers are required to pass criminal background checks. Staff will be on site to perform maintenance and provide security. “We want to treat people who are fragile, who are seniors,” he said.
Throughout the evening both the audience and planning commissioners repeatedly referenced the project planned for the site. Senior planner Mike Basinger emphasized that the commission was only considering a zoning change. “It’s easy to get caught up in the project,” he said. “The project isn’t here yet and the city doesn’t know when it will arrive.”
Acting City Attorney Cary Driskell threw a wrinkle into the process by presenting a memo about a federal law called the Religion Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law restricts what cities can do in land use cases where churches are involved. In some cases it can “pre-empt a local government’s attempt to enforce land use regulations against a church,” Driskell wrote in a memo to the commission. Since helping the poor and elderly is in the church’s mission statement, denying a zone change that would allow them to fulfill that mission could be considered a violation of the church’s rights.
“If the city denies a religious institution’s request for a rezone when the religious institution wishes to build housing near its facility for low-income and senior living in order to fulfill its religious mission, the City would likely be in violation of RLUIPA,” Driskell wrote.
That information did not deter the planning commissioners, several of whom said they drove through the neighborhood to see it for themselves. Several said they didn’t believe such a large project would fit into the neighborhood. Commission Chairman John Carroll was one of those who took a tour and said the project was “out of order.”
“I agree with you,” said Commissioner Joe Stoy. “This is the wrong time, wrong place.”
Commissioner Arne Woodard said that while he was concerned about increased traffic and was disappointed that the church didn’t involve neighbors in the process earlier, there was a need for such a facility. “Change happens, unfortunately.”
“I cannot support it because I think it’s in the wrong place,” said Commissioner Joe Mann. “If we approve the zoning, it cannot be stopped. It can be mitigated and modified, but it cannot be stopped.”
The commissioners voted 4-2 to recommend denial of the zone change, with Woodard and Commissioner Bill Bates voting to approve it. Commissioner Marcia Sands was absent. The issue will now go before the City Council, which will have the final say on whether to grant the zone change.
In other business, the same four commissioners voted to recommend to the City Council that the Sprague/Appleway Revitalization Plan be retained, but that it should be studied for further modification. “This is a short term economic problem,” said Commissioner Rustin Hall. “It’s going to come back. As long as we keep bickering about this and listening to special interests, we’re going to continue to scare people away. My goodness, we’ve got to have some vision here. I’m not ready to throw in the towel.”
The city promised to help businesses along Sprague, Carroll said. “If we eliminate SARP we are abandoning them,” he said. “SARP is our commitment to helping those people.”
SARP is too expensive for business, Woodard said, and the city doesn’t have time to wait for a 20-year plan to take effect. “People aren’t developing because of the cost and the uncertainty,” he said. “I think we need to move on.”
“I don’t think eliminating SARP is going to help anything,” said Mann. “We don’t seem to have a direction. We don’t seem to have much leadership.”
Stoy said the rules in SARP do need to be eased and the plan should be reanalyzed. “SARP does have a point, somewhere,” he said. “Originally I was going to vote this out. I think we need to make modifications.”