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Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder proposes limits on urban growth

A Spokane City councilman is proposing a plan to slow or stop sprawl by withholding critical services from new developments.

Councilman Jon Snyder is sponsoring an ordinance that would prevent the city from extending sewer and water service to areas being brought into the urban growth zone while challenges to those new areas are heard.

Last July, Spokane County commissioners approved a controversial 4,100-acre expansion of the area where more intensive residential and commercial development is allowed.

The expansion is on the fringes of existing development in Mead, the West Plains, Spokane Valley and southeast Spokane.

Developers moved quickly to file applications as soon as county commissioners approved the urban growth area expansion on July 18. Even if opponents of the expansion are successful in challenging it, developers who had completed applications would be vested in their right to develop their land, under state law. What’s more, state law also allows developers to go ahead with projects when an urban expansion is under legal challenge.

In November, a coalition of local advocacy and neighborhood groups and several individuals won a ruling declaring the commissioners’ urban expansion to be invalid because they failed to hold sufficient public hearings. The state Growth Management Hearings Board ordered new public hearings by June 4.

At the same time, Gov. Jay Inslee has ordered the state commerce and transportation departments to join the challenge.

Snyder’s proposed ordinance would withhold water and sewer services until all appeals are exhausted and any new growth areas have been fully approved.

Snyder said he believes he has enough support on the council to win approval of the ordinance.

At 60 square miles, the city of Spokane is already so spread out that it has become increasingly difficult to maintain adequate public services and infrastructure, Snyder said.

The county commissioners’ attempt to add to the urban growth area simply adds to the burden of supplying services and increased costs to existing city residents, he said. City residents have been subsidizing urban sprawl for years, he said.

Many of the newly expanded areas will eventually be annexed into the city under statewide growth policies, he said.

“We have to stop this,” Snyder said. “We have to join the 21st century and do the logical planning that benefits our citizens.”

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said Snyder’s proposal would slow economic growth and take away new opportunities to capitalize on public investments in utilities and other community infrastructure that date back years, including sewer and water line extensions to the West Plains.

“They are playing politics with the public’s assets,” French said.

At the heart of the dispute is a vision of economic development. Newer urban thinking focuses on revitalized city neighborhoods with transit and pedestrian amenities, nearby shopping and close-in employment.

That is in contrast to the post-World War II pattern that sent growth to less expensive land on the urban fringe, a pattern made possible in part by freeways.

Snyder argues that county building standards have been inferior to those required by the city, including requirements for roads and sidewalks.

In the first few months after commissioners approved the urban growth expansion last summer, developers filed applications to develop more than 630 home sites in the disputed newly urban lands, an analysis shows.

Snyder said developers are seeking to take advantage of the state’s “vesting” law and avoid the possibility that their properties might ultimately be ruled inappropriate for urban development.

One of those is the 109-lot Twisted Willows residential proposal that has only one access point at Custer Street and 42nd Avenue in southeast Spokane, Snyder said. It would send hundreds, if not thousands, of daily vehicle trips onto a substandard Havana Street, an old two-lane roadway.

Snyder’s proposal would prevent construction of those homes by blocking water and sewer service until the dispute over the site’s suitability for urban expansion is settled.

Snyder said the city has plenty of existing urban land that is suitable for redevelopment, something that is more cost-effective to the city in terms of police, fire, park and other services.

“I would love to roll back years of sprawl,” Snyder said.

A vote on Snyder’s proposal is set for March 17 at the City Council’s regularly scheduled meeting at 6 p.m. in the lower level of City Hall.

French said he plans to attend the meeting to argue against the measure.