Spokane County’s progress toward expansion of the urban growth area has been bumpier than a ride down a country road. You know, like Lincoln Street between Third and Main avenues.
The county hit another pothole, if not sinkhole, earlier this week. The Growth Management Hearings Board ruled the commissioners were speeding when they approved a total 4,100-acre addition to areas suitable for dense, urban development. In fact, the commissioners were traveling at warp speed before they collapsed the proposed expansion down from the 6,000 acres under consideration until the summer.
The board faulted the county for failing to conduct adequate public hearings when establishing population projections used to determine how much new area should be available for development.
The county forecast as many as 130,000 new residents over the next 20 years. The Washington Department of Commerce estimates around 115,000. More significantly, the department says the existing urban boundaries can accommodate 117,000 people.
In other words, there is plenty of space already for newcomers.
The county also added 2,000 acres in new commercial and industrial space despite an oversupply that will take some years to absorb.
Ill-advised as the county’s assumptions may be, they do serve a self-purpose: With every annexation by the city of Spokane, Airway Heights or other jurisdiction, the county loses sales and property tax revenue, while increases in the cost of providing services abate little, if any.
Allowing development just outside urban boundaries allows the county to capture those revenues without an obligation to extend roads, or water and sewer service. Those responsibilities belong to the cities, which must spread the costs to all taxpayers, although development impact fees ease some of the burden.
Eventually, though, the new developments become ripe for annexation, and the county again looks to open up more areas. A county proposal that might break the cycle – a city/county split of revenues as the tax base expands – apparently needs more work before officials can go forward.
The county has until June to correct the errors identified by the hearings board. With Gov. Jay Inslee taking the side of expansion opponents, the commissioners clearly have the burden of proof that boundary expansion is necessary. The case for anything beyond fine-tuning today’s boundaries will be difficult, as it should be.
Meanwhile, the city of Spokane, despite the well-executed street improvement plan now winding down, has plenty of work to catch up on, Lincoln being only one example. New measures to corral stormwater are another drain on city coffers.
New infrastructure is costly. Old infrastructure is costly, but it is in place. The more infilling that can be done within Spokane, Spokane Valley and other incorporated cities, the better. Suggesting, as the county has, that new residents won’t find room enough for urban living within those communities is mistaken, and potentially very costly.