March 19, 2014 in City

Shawn Vestal: Spokane County commissioners get taste of own medicine

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Shawn Vestal
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The papal Spokane County Commission – which issues edicts and sends messages – is on the receiving end of a message, for once.

The Spokane City Council took a big, fat swipe Monday at the county’s regular and intentional skirting of state growth management laws, closing the loophole through which commissioners push improper or illegal developments onto the backs of city taxpayers. In essence, the new city law blocks the county’s chess move of choice, in which commissioners expand the county growth boundaries without following the rules; developers quickly file plans that are immediately considered “vested,” or grandfathered in; and by the time the county’s moves are overturned, it’s too late.

It’s like those laws never existed.

“It’s definitely a strategy,” said Rick Eichstaedt, the director of the Center for Justice. The county’s implicit message to developers when it takes these steps, he said, is: Get your applications in quick, before the state shuts the door.

Eichstaedt’s organization has successfully challenged three major growth-boundary expansions by the county – though the “success” of those victories has been offset by the fact that developers were able to proceed anyway.

The City Council says this repeatedly puts the city on the hook for costly services in areas bordering the city. The council’s Monday vote would prohibit extending services to developments outside the city until legal challenges are resolved.

This did not sit right with Commissioners Todd Mielke, Shelly O’Quinn and Al French, all of whom objected to the new law at Monday night’s City Council meeting.

The commission’s extreme pro-development approach has pitted it against the state’s Growth Management Board so often and in so many different ways that Spokane County is clearly the state’s top growth-management scofflaw.

Commissioners regularly pooh-pooh or ignore the idea that sprawling growth is an expensive drain on public resources. When they were approving a major, controversial expansion of the Urban Growth Area last summer, French and County Planning Director John Pederson put on a little public performance in which the cost of the expansion in services was portrayed as a mere $2.5 million.

Pederson later acknowledged this was a mistake.

The real figure was something like $64 million.

It’s hard to be specific about the costs of sprawl, but they are inarguable and large. Extending new services – water, police, fire protection – to the fringes is more expensive than providing them within existing boundaries.

When the county amended its growth plan in 2005 to allow 1,500 new homes – rather than 22 – to be built, neighbors successfully appealed. But by the time the Eastern Washington Growth Management Board gave the county a smack-down two years later, calling the decision “clearly erroneous,” it was too late to close the barn door. The board said the area had been “blanketed” with development in a once-rural region with “inadequate or questionable” levels of service, according to an investigation by the nonprofit journalism center InvestigateWest.

But never mind that. The commission would like for you to believe that sprawl is good for business and therefore good for you. Not only that, but closing the loophole through which the commission sprawls will be bad for business.

At the City Council meeting Monday, French testified that the new law would put a chill on the business climate. In other words, the entire economy will suffer if developers could not rely upon the county to guide them around the law.

You might recall a slightly different battle that the county engaged in recently, regarding appointments to the city-county Landmarks Commission. The commission oversees historic preservation, and its progress was stalled by the fact that commissioners were not filling vacancies on the board. French said the county was sending a message to the board for a ruling it made that a proposed warehouse was threatening a historic site.

The message: We’re the boss.

The same body pulling that stunt showed up to complain Monday night about the City Council’s disregard for process, for public input, for careful, cautious, deliberative action.

Turns out it’s a lot more satisfying to send messages than to receive them.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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