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Editorial: City, county growth policy needs more dialogue

Spokane Mayor David Condon should veto a proposed ordinance that would deny city water and sewer service to developments outside the urban growth boundary, and the City Council should let the veto stand.

But discussions regarding where development conforms not just with the Growth Management Act, but the best interests of the city as well, are past due.

Passed by the City Council on a 4-2 vote March 17, the new law would prevent developer abuse of an unusually permissive Washington law that permits subdivisions to go forward while administrative rulings that allowed them are appealed in court. Once “vested,” they cannot be stopped even if the courts eventually rule that planners erred when they approved housing, commercial or industrial developments outside urban growth boundaries.

Vesting frustrates the Growth Management Act objective of controlling urban sprawl, which raises costs for everyone. Taxes from residential subdivisions on the fringe of urban areas do not pay the full cost of delivering services, which means other taxpayers help foot the bill, and contend with the added traffic.

Vesting resulted in dense housing on Five Mile Prairie that overwhelmed access roads and drainage systems, but overall growth in Spokane County has generally been so gradual the incremental increase in demand for services has not been burdensome. Traffic congestion remains a minor irritation.

Spokane has the smallest footprint and highest density of the 10 cities Greater Spokane Incorporated uses as benchmarks to measure the area’s economic performance.

The city also has a long list of unmet needs, from more police officers, to repairs or replacement of miles of pavement, to stormwater retention facilities. Decisions by Spokane County to allow more homes on Glenrose or near the Little Spokane River create new obligations.

But reviewed individually, none of the areas the latest county plan would bring inside the urban boundary make a good case for denying services.

The biggest, in Mead, is already urban. Residential lots depend on aging septic systems, and one school is on a treatment plant that would not work if sewage was not trucked in. On Glenrose Prairie, a sewer line already crosses the property.

The Center for Justice and other expansion foes cite a January 2012 report that recommends most of the proposed additions be denied. Urban boundaries should be drafted to accommodate growth over the next 20 years, they say, and that infilling within the existing borders is more than sufficient.

While that may be true, the higher densities that fulfill the city’s centers and corridors master plan will bring their own challenges.

The county commissioners, who strongly assert an ordinance to deny services would be illegal, can blame themselves or their predecessors for the city’s reaction. Some of today’s headaches date back to the decades before growth management became law.

County and city policies on growth need a reset without litigation over vesting. A veto, if upheld and followed by a longer dialogue than preceded its passage, seems a better starting point.


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