The city of Spokane has found a way to block development at its borders, even if that growth takes place within the urban growth boundary.
The shift in power from county to city stems from an anti-sprawl measure passed earlier this year by the City Council, then vetoed by Mayor David Condon. With the creation of a six-year water plan, something already required by the state Department of Health, the city will explicitly define where it will extend its water service over the next few years. In effect, the city will no longer react to where the county allows growth to occur, but rather will tell the county where it will allow growth.
“There isn’t any question that it gives more power to the city,” said Rick Romero, the city’s utilities director, who came up with the plan. “But the intent isn’t necessarily to … take power from the county. It’s to force a business discussion about what makes sense before we make annexation and expansion decisions.”
At stake is a decadeslong feud between the city and county about growth, which usually goes something like this: The county expands the urban growth boundary over the city’s objections. Development occurs and the city provides utilities. If it’s growth that raises revenue, such as tax proceeds through retail sales, the city annexes the property and takes the revenue from the county.
In the end, nobody is pleased.
Romero said his plan would avoid these thorny, one-sided decisions on expansion and annexation by forcing a discussion before anything occurs.
County Commissioner Al French said he didn’t know enough about Romero’s plan to comment on it, but he agreed there was a solution to be found. He said the county has already found one in a revenue-sharing scheme that gives half the tax revenue earned on retail properties outside of city limits if it provides utilities.
“They get 50 percent of the revenue without providing anything other than water and sewer, which they are fully compensated for,” he said. “The city makes out like a bandit.”
French said the revenue-sharing plan stops annexation while making the city and county “partners” in how the region grows. He called arguments to the contrary “garbage.”
“It’s the difference between fact and fiction,” he said. “There’s a whole lot of hyperbole about, ‘Dear God, the sky is falling,’ when there’s no evidence to support it.”
But Romero said he tries to avoid such heated arguments.
“The idea here isn’t to stop growth or stop development. The idea is to do it in a smart and managed way,” he said. The city would hold hearings about proposed expansions of its water lines at least once a year, perhaps more. Those proposals could come from the county or property owners, but if the growth isn’t within the city’s water plan, the city could deny the developer a “certificate of availability” and stop the development before it even begins.
Council President Ben Stuckart said he hoped the plan would lead to “a collaborative approach about where to expand.”
Collaborative or not, Stuckart said the city will be the victor with Romero’s plan.
“Long term, it gives us the same amount of control with more flexibility” when compared with the ordinance put forth earlier this year by the council that would’ve allowed absolutely no growth, Stuckart said. “This will allow the courts to run their course (on expansion challenges). And allow the city to say what happens. And allow us to have a crisp, clean conversation about where we want to see development happen, like in the West Plains.”
At Monday’s Public Works Committee meeting, Stuckart was undoubtedly supportive of the strategy but said it wouldn’t come without its challenges or critics.
“They will sue us,” he said. “There will be a lawsuit.”
Michael Cathcart, government affairs director at the Spokane Home Builders Association, didn’t mention a lawsuit Tuesday. But he did say he was concerned that Romero’s plan wasn’t “vetted” through the proper channels, like the Plan Commission, at City Hall. But above that, he simply didn’t think it was good governing.
“The first and foremost concern is anything that will be a substantial change to the current structure should be a compromise between the city and county,” Cathcart said. “The city is moving forward with this unilaterally. They should come up with a joint plan. There should be more give and take on how growth affects each entity.”
Romero said that’s already taking place. Condon vetoed the ordinance completely limiting growth, Romero said, only when he had an agreement from county officials to meet and find a solution.
Additionally, Romero said the county should be impressed with the wholesale part of his plan, as opposed to the retail. While the retail aspect of the plan dealt with individual developments and property owners, the wholesale aspect would allow the city to sell water to its thirsty neighbors, such as Airway Heights, Medical Lake and Fairchild Air Force Base.
“All three of these are not sitting over our aquifer and they’ve got some really big challenges in terms of water resources and water availability,” Romero said. “I’ve proposed that we put a big circle around this area in our water plan and say, ‘We’re going to focus our energies in the next year on coming up with a wholesale water strategy for the West Plains area.’ ”
The reasons why are many, Romero said: They need it. Spokane has abundant water rights and water, and the West Plains has neither.
And there’s money to be had. By providing the West Plains with a long-term water source, Romero said more development would likely happen out there, notably the coveted aerospace industry. Development on the West Plains could theoretically bring revenue to the county. Also, selling water earns the city revenue not previously realized.
“I’m a huge proponent of trying to find mutual wins and mutual solutions,” Romero said. “Let’s make the pie bigger and we all win rather fighting for a bigger piece.”