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Shawn Vestal: County permit ‘clerical mishap’ raises eyebrows

OK, just to be clear: Two Spokane County planning officials pleaded the Fifth Amendment – you know, the one where you can’t be compelled to give criminal evidence against yourself – when asked in a public hearing if they had falsified planning documents to boost a new gas station over a legal hurdle.

But they didn’t, we’re told, do anything wrong.

Spokane County’s unofficial policy of approving developments and then hustling to get them grandfathered in before they’re undone took a turn this week that even the most conspiratorial-minded of critics might not have foreseen. A landowner wants to build a gas station at Argonne and Bigelow Gulch roads, on land the county added to its growth management boundary last July. Unfortunately, the state invalidated that expansion last November, also invalidating the zoning under which the project’s permit was approved.

If the application was completed between July and November, it would be considered “vested” and grandfathered in. The seeming abuse of vesting is the loophole the City Council tried to close in March – undermined by Mayor David Condon’s veto – because it essentially allows developers to take a side route around land-use laws with the county commission’s help.

The latest allegation, if true, would amount to a whole new level of chicanery. The project’s first “Determination of Completeness” was signed Jan. 27 of this year. Too late for vesting. Well after too late. And yet the project was moving forward with the county’s blessing. Rick Eichstaedt, the attorney for neighbors challenging the project, inquired about this discrepancy. Within a couple of days, a new permit appeared.

Dated Aug. 30, 2013.

Vested!

An email that planner Julie Shatto sent to the property owner put it this way: “Attached please find an amended Determination of Completeness for your records for the above noted subject. It was brought to my attention yesterday that I had erroneously input the wrong date that the county building and planning department had determined your application to be complete.”

If the paperwork were falsified – back-dated – it might arguably be a felony, in addition to simply a sleazy confirmation of the worst assumptions about Spokane County’s approach to development. The county now argues not that the August date is correct, but that the application was considered complete in September by “operation of law” – meaning the applicant had not been notified that the application was incomplete, and so is considered complete by default.

“The county has changed its story three times now,” Eichstaedt said.

If the application was indeed determined to be complete in September, he said, that determination was made before the property owner had submitted responses to a wide range of county requests for information, and before the locations of the fuel tanks had even been submitted. The information that the county was seeking included items that are listed as requirements for the application.

That information was submitted to the county in January, right before the date was “erroneously input.” At a hearing Monday before the county hearing examiner, Eichstaedt asked planner Julie Shatto, “What date did you really sign it?”

At that point, he said, county attorney Dave Huber responded that Shatto wanted to assert her Fifth Amendment rights and not answer the question. Later in the hearing, Eichstaedt put a similar question to Randy Vissia, building director.

Same answer. Pleaded the Fifth.

Vissia said Thursday that he and Shatto took the Fifth because they’d been “panicked” by Eichstaedt’s aggressive questioning in an earlier letter about the dating of the documents, and the fact that he had raised the question of whether records had been falsified in violation of state law. He said he wishes in retrospect they had answered the questions.

Vissia insisted that the project application was complete when it was filed in August, and that planning officials simply failed to properly document it then. The questions that were pending between September and January were not germane to the building permit itself, he said, but were part of the separate environmental review. Once those questions were answered in January, the Determination of Completeness was issued in error, he said.

When Eichstaedt questioned Shatto about it, she then filed the amended record, reflecting the date when the county had actually considered the application complete, Vissia said.

It was a “clerical mishap,” he said, “not a cover-up. … I know what it looks like. It looks terrible.”

It’s a supremely ironic moment for this to arise. The City Council’s attempt to close the vesting loophole set off a tiff with the county commission, ranging from a testy text message that Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn shot to Council President Ben Stuckart over time limits on her testimony to a preposterous – and now withdrawn – public records request filed with the city by Commissioner Al French that was laden with innuendo and snarky, self-satisfied zingers.

In the wake of that, and the mayor’s veto, we’re supposedly entering a time of a cooperative discussion about how the community will grow. City Council members and commissioners are meeting to hash it over. To look over the facts. To move past the rhetoric. To have an open and productive discussion.

Hopefully, no one else will feel the need to clam up to avoid incriminating themselves of a crime.

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


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