Spokane County commissioners are poised to open raw land for new development, a boon for housing speculators.
But the expansion could come with significant public costs. The county’s own draft environmental impact statement found that providing services to the expanded urban area would cost nearly $1 billion for new schools, parks, libraries and police protection. Those estimates don’t include the cost of road improvements, fire protection, and utility extensions and upgrades.
Residents will get a chance this week to comment on the wide-ranging expansion of the county’s urban footprint. A public hearing is set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the county Public Works Building, 1026 W. Broadway Ave.
Commissioners are basing the expansion on optimistic projections that the county will grow from 480,000 residents today to 612,000 by 2031.
Options under consideration would add nearly 6,000 acres of land for suburban-style subdivisions and 1,000 acres for commercial and industrial use.
Many of the areas under consideration are currently held in parcels of 10 to 20 acres or larger. Land speculators have amassed larger holdings in some locations and are waiting for an urban growth designation so they can subdivide the property to as many as six homes per acre.
The state of Washington has come out against the proposals, as have environmentalists.
“We are concerned that the county is considering significant expansions to the urban growth area despite a clear showing that new land is unneeded,” Dave Anderson, the state’s eastern regional manager for growth management services, said in a letter to commissioners.
Kitty Klitzke, Eastern Washington director for Futurewise, a public interest group focused on growth-management issues, said she believes that the commissioners are trying to satisfy a segment of the community that is invested in outward expansion.
The commissioners, she said, “feel more and more pressure as years go by to change this land for developers.”
Some of the areas under consideration are included in the proposal because the landowners asked for urban designation.
Futurewise is arguing that there is sufficient undeveloped land within the current urban area to allow for population growth.
The public ends up subsidizing the development through taxes and utility rates needed to provide public services, she said.
Futurewise expects to appeal any expansion of the growth area. Klitzke said she believes the organization stands a good chance of winning the appeal.
But state law would allow developers to submit preliminary plats during the appeal process and develop those plats even if the boundary expansion is later overturned, Klitzke said.
Commissioners say the new land is needed, in part, because residents like new subdivisions. Such expansion is also considered economic growth.
“The law says we are supposed to accommodate population in a reasonable manner” for the next 20 years, Commissioner Todd Mielke said.
Spokane City Councilwoman Amber Waldref said expansion of the urban growth area would put additional pressure on the city to extend services to the new developments.
“It’s not sustainable,” she said.
The Spokane Regional Transportation Council said the public will likely be asked to approve new transportation taxes to pay for local road expansions.
Several of the areas under consideration for urban designation would add traffic to Interstate 90 through Spokane Valley as well as connecting arterials such as Sullivan, Pines and Dishman-Mica roads.
A Washington State Department of Transportation planner said a more careful analysis would likely show “that significant new improvements will be needed to maintain the performance of the state transportation system.”
“Given the existing deficiencies both in Spokane County and throughout the state, we do not believe the funding for such improvements is likely,” said the planner, Greg Figg.
The areas proposed for expansion are scattered around the perimeter of the current urban growth area. Some of the larger ones are:
• The Monte Del Rey neighborhood north of Trent Avenue in Spokane Valley has undeveloped land that the owners want to use for new home plats, but Mielke said the addition there is likely to take in only the existing neighborhood and a few other parcels.
• Several areas near Saltese Flats southeast of Spokane Valley are already partly developed but have significant tracts that could hold new subdivisions. Central Valley School District has property that might be a new school site, and it wants to be able to extend sewer lines to it. State law says that sewers can only be extended inside the urban growth area.
• The Belle Terre neighborhood south of Spokane Valley also has large tracts that currently cannot be subdivided to six homes per acre, but expansion of the urban area would allow that.
• Glenrose Prairie southeast of Spokane has some chunks of land that could be developed at a greater density under the proposal. Residents there have resisted urban expansion for years.
• The Moran Prairie neighborhood south of 57th Avenue and Regal is a mix of subdivisions and large tracts. It is proposed for inclusion in the growth area. The county owns a 10-acre tract south of the Southside Aquatics Center.
• The area along U.S. Highway 2 in Mead would be included, although residents in subdivisions east of the highway are opposed to the change because it could force them to hook up to sewers in the future. Mielke said sewers are needed, including a connection to Mountainside Middle School along Day-Mount Spokane Road.
• A large swath of land between Airway Heights, Fairchild Air Force Base and Interstate 90 would be opened for new industrial development, partly as a lure to manufacturing facilities.