April 2, 2014 in Opinion

Editorial: Smart urban growth will take smart politics

 

Mayor David Condon’s veto of an ordinance that would withhold water and sewer services from areas newly folded into Spokane County’s urban growth boundaries was the correct call, but only a first step.

His veto also announced a joint development agreement that imposes a one-year freeze on city annexations, and county actions that would expand the urban growth area. In the meantime, a city-county work group will study solutions to the counterproductive dynamics that perpetuate expensive sprawl.

Start, as almost always, with money.

The city selectively annexes areas that yield enough additional taxes to more than cover the costs of utility hookups, and roads. Impact fees are an additional revenue tool, but can be imposed only for transportation improvements.

The county responds by opening more land to urban development to offset losses due to annexation. Because those areas are usually at the end of water or sewer lines, the city has to invest in expensive extensions that new users will not entirely pay for. Other city utility users get stuck with the rest of the bill, perhaps as high as $64 million for the new county-approved urban area expansions in Mead, and on the West Plains and Glenrose.

The solution is a sharing of revenues from annexed areas that lessen the incentives for the city to cherry pick tax-rich areas, and enables the county to carry the high costs of our criminal justice system. An agreement has been on the to-do lists of the city and county since last July. A resolution before both get too deep into budgeting for 2015 would be enormously constructive.

Also, as the mayor noted Monday, the city has been disappointed with developer response to incentives intended to spur growth conforming to a centers-and-corridors master plan that would increase residential and business density. As long as cheaper land outside the city is available, and builders and home buyers do not have to pay the full cost of water and sewer, that is where they are going to go.

The agreement also calls for more education on growth management, compiling an inventory of land already open to development, and joint planning; all no-brainers, and all things that should get done whether or not the City Council overrides Condon’s veto.

An override will invite litigation that would divert resources from the real task at hand: reconciling city and county policies that frustrate the goal of smart, sustainable growth. Twenty-four years after passage of Washington’s Growth Management Act, the city, county and other local jurisdictions should long since have been on the same page.

There’s one good reason why this effort should succeed: The ordinance was well-received in the city. If an all-Republican county commission cannot work with a pseudo-nonpartisan Republican mayor to make growth management work, the way to the 2015 election of a pseudo-nonpartisan Democrat will be wide open.

City residents unhappy with water rate increases ousted Condon predecessor Mary Verner. Sprawl increases costs.

Lesson learned?


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