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Spokane Valley working on Spokane River buffer plan

Wed., Sept. 3, 2014

The Spokane River flows near Mirabeau Park in Spokane Valley on Aug. 31. (Jesse Tinsley)
The Spokane River flows near Mirabeau Park in Spokane Valley on Aug. 31. (Jesse Tinsley)

Developer John Miller knows he’s lost prospective clients at his upscale Pinecroft Business Park in Spokane Valley because of uncertainty about building close to the Spokane River.

“I can’t tell them what the rules are,” Miller said of potential buyers of the business park’s prime commercial parcels overlooking the Spokane River who are concerned about development restrictions. “There needs to be some flexibility instead of a one-size-fits-all.”

He might soon get his wish.

After years of planning and research, Spokane Valley is putting the finishing touches on a proposed shoreline protection buffer that state regulators say could be the first of its kind in Washington.

The Valley is proposing a variable width buffer that’s tailored to the specific environmental conditions found on each parcel, which means it widens along portions of the Spokane River where greater protection is needed but narrows where there’s less vegetation and potential wildlife habitat. City planners say it complies with state requirements for protecting shorelines while posing minimal intrusion onto private property.

The Pinecroft Business Park is among the few Valley locations where the buffer still partially extends onto some privately owned commercial parcels – but not as far as Miller and others thought it might. Formal adoption of the proposed shoreline plan would bring the kind of certainty needed for site planning.

“There needs to be a little common sense,” said Miller, founder of Divcon Inc. “I think if you’ve got a critical area that needs to be a little more restrictive, adjust the buffer to provide that without impacting areas where it’s not as necessary.”

The plan still needs Spokane Valley City Council approval, but it’s the state Department of Ecology that will have the final say.

The overall buffer would be narrower than the standard uniform-width buffers typically created by cities and counties because it expands and contracts along the riverbank. State regulators have tentatively endorsed the concept, but some environmental groups are expressing concern it’s too shallow to adequately protect wildlife.

“It’s more of an exact approach,” said Spokane Valley Senior Planner Lori Barlow, who helped oversee development of the city’s draft plan. “Our buffer follows ecological function.”

Typically, cities and counties adopt uniform-width buffers of 50 to 200 feet from the banks of rivers and lakes to comply with state-mandated shoreline rules.

Property within those buffers is subject to additional restrictions, and new structures generally are prohibited, which is why Valley city leaders want the tightest, legally permissible buffers possible.

Aided by the fact that the Valley has comparatively little shoreline, city crews mapped the Spokane River, taking inventory of vegetation and environmental conditions. The city then proposed a buffer that expands and contracts to protect the sensitive areas and also created a GIS overlay that developers can use to determine where, and if, the buffer reaches their property.

In addition to the river, the city also mapped Shelley Lake, a small lake surrounded mostly by a gated residential neighborhood near Central Valley High School.

“This is something we could do because we don’t have a lot of shoreline,” Barlow said. “For most jurisdictions it would be impractical.”

An advantage for the Valley is that much of the riverbank is owned by the state, in part because of the Centennial Trail. That means most of the proposed buffer zone is absorbed by public lands. The buffer extends onto few privately owned parcels, said John Hohman, the Valley’s community development director.

“This … really has very minimal impact on the development community here,” Hohman said.

The buffer is part of an overall shoreline management plan that requires state Department of Ecology approval. Other portions include an easing of prohibitions on docks in certain free-flowing portions of the Spokane River along waterfront residential lots just east of Millwood, provided a series of conditions are met. It would let existing buildings and structures inside the buffer zone remain.

The Spokane Valley Planning Commission has recommended the plan be approved.

Initially, the variable buffer approach caused concern among state regulators, who worried it would be too complicated. But after demonstrations from city engineers and planners on how easy the proposed buffer maps would be to use, and the level of assistance city staff was prepared to provide, regulators signed off on the concept.

It would be the first variable buffer of its kind in Eastern Washington and possibly statewide, though a city in Western Washington is taking a similar approach, according to the DOE.

Futurewise and other environmental groups have expressed concern about the variable buffers, suggesting they’re too shallow to provide adequate habitat protection for shorebirds. But the groups, when asked, were unable to provide city planning commissioners with specific examples of where they considered the buffer widths inadequate.

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