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County mulls Boeing lure

Proposed ordinance would ease limits on building heights to allow for 737s

A county zoning overhaul aims to land a Boeing manufacturing plant at Spokane International Airport.

An interim ordinance would selectively raise height limits to allow structures big enough to hold a jetliner.

If adopted next Tuesday as proposed, the ordinance would take effect immediately and give county officials six months to work out details.

The interim ordinance would require a public hearing within 30 days and could be renewed in six-month increments.

Economic development officials say prompt action is needed to put Spokane on Boeing’s radar. The idea is to have suitable sites ready early next year, when Boeing is expected to solicit proposals for expanding its capacity.

Spokane and Spokane County are part of a coalition of communities across the state that hopes to keep Boeing’s 737 production lines in Washington as the company adds one or more plants to meet demand for a new version of the aircraft.

The coalition of business, labor and government organizations – dubbed Project Pegasus – was forged by Seattle land-use attorney Tayloe Washburn at the direction of Gov. Chris Gregoire.

She previously tapped Washburn to lead Project Olympus, an effort to help Boeing win a contract to build new fuel tankers for the Air Force.

The aerospace giant has announced plans to ramp up 737 production from about 28 planes a month to at least 42 by 2014 as it rolls out a more fuel-efficient version of the popular single-aisle jetliner, to be known as the 737 MAX.

“They want to see communities that are 100 percent ready for development,” said Robin Toth, Greater Spokane Incorporated’s vice president for business development.

She and Todd Woodard, marketing director for Spokane International Airport, are co-leaders of a local Project Pegasus task force that has been at work since August.

The task force also includes representatives of Spokane, Spokane County, the Spokane Area Workforce Development Council, Community Colleges of Spokane and – soon to be added – the state Department of Transportation.

At a meeting last week of local, state and Fairchild Air Force Base officials, Toth said she thought Project Pegasus consultants “pretty much discounted Spokane until they got here and saw what we had.”

Toth said she thought there was a good chance of winning at least a piece of Boeing’s larger pie.

“We have great land values; we have a very strong workforce; we have a lot of training going on here,” Toth said. “Cost-effective utilities, all of that.”

Also, the nearby Triumph plant already makes components for Boeing.

A Boeing assembly plant would be “the biggest project to come to us, ever,” Toth said. It would eclipse the successful effort earlier this year to attract a Caterpillar distribution center.

“You could add some zeros to that” in terms of money pumped into the local economy, Toth said.

Spokane’s competition would include Washington cities that already have Boeing plants or possibly Grant County, which has a large runway and cheap electricity. So far, though, Project Pegasus members are focused on beating back other states, such as South Carolina or Texas.

Unencumbered by Washington’s constitutional prohibition on using public money for private gain, “Texas will write a $50 million check to Boeing,” Toth said.

She anticipates a report by the Accenture consulting company – hired by Project Pegasus members for approximately $500,000 – to focus heavily on education.

Boeing needs skilled workers and “innovative employees that can take them to that next big product,” Toth said. “I think that will really set us apart from some other parts of the country.”

The report is expected to be released publicly within a couple of weeks.

Toth said local officials need to be prepared for anything Boeing might offer, including a full-blown assembly plant at Spokane International Airport.

Airport Director Larry Krauter identified some possible sites, and Woodard urged county officials to begin “pre-permitting” work to clear regulatory hurdles – as they did for the Caterpillar plant.

Commissioners increased a 35-foot height limit to 60 feet in county light industrial zones around the airport to accommodate the Caterpillar warehouse. But a Boeing assembly plant would need a building about 100 feet tall.

“That’s critical,” Toth told county commissioners.

The proposed interim zoning ordinance would solve the height problem by adopting Spokane’s limit of 150 feet in light industrial zones.

The previous height increase was limited to the West Plains, but the new one would apply to light industrial zones throughout the county.

In the vicinity of Spokane International Airport and Fairchild Air Force Base, the height limit and other zoning regulations would be subject to an “overlay zone” with additional restrictions.

Airport officials have said they are comfortable with the Spokane standards.

The airport is part of a 10-square-mile area the city will annex in January, and county commissioners said they want to eliminate confusion by applying the city’s standards to nearby land that will remain under their jurisdiction.

However, commissioners plan to make an exception for some land close to Fairchild or in the base’s flight path. Building heights in those areas are to be frozen at their current 35- and 60-foot maximums.

Although the airport overlay restrictions would limit heights in part of the affected airports, commissioners said they want to make doubly certain.

They want to prevent any unintended consequences such as a 2005 fiasco in which an effort to allow commercial uses in light industrial zones opened the door to housing in airport crash zones.

Commissioner Mark Richard urged Spokane Mayor Mary Verner to consider similar action to prevent taller buildings in portions of the exclusion area that the city will annex.

As part of the interim ordinance, the county would adopt new Fairchild crash-zone standards.

A Joint Land Use Study recommends the military-standard crash zones among other land-use changes to improve Fairchild’s chances of surviving future base closures.