The contractor who illegally bulldozed a road through the middle of forested park land on High Drive Bluff and ignited a South Hill uproar first told Spokane city officials he was working for Avista Utilities.
However, he later said he had a verbal agreement to do the work for an organization pushing to build a golf course for kids.
As blame circulated and the stakes rose, contractor Adam Swedberg stopped talking publicly, sought advice from his attorney, and left all sides of the controversy to speculate on just how the contractor thought he had approval to cut a road across the popular hillsides of ponderosa pine and walking trails on the steep bluff above Latah Creek.
City Parks Director Leroy Eadie, who went out at 6 a.m. Wednesday and put a stop to the bulldozing along the bluff, said he learned that Swedberg has no contract with Avista. But Swedberg had been in talks to build an access road for First Tee of the Inland Northwest, a nonprofit organization seeking to build a par-3, three-hole golf course next to The Creek at Qualchan.
“We and Avista have the same impression … that Adam (Swedberg) believes he got permission or the go-ahead and that it was OK to begin the project,” Eadie said. “The only two people he was talking to was (Steve) Prugh or the arborist from Avista or Parks.”
Prugh is a First Tee board member and longtime club pro at Manito Golf and Country Club. He said he didn’t give Swedberg the approval to start building the road.
“Obviously, Adam (Swedberg) and I talked back and forth about what was going to happen,” Prugh said Thursday. “He interpreted something different than I interpreted it. I knew he was meeting with Avista and urban forestry. I told him, ‘You can’t do anything until you have approval from them.’ ”
City Arborist Jeff Perry told Eadie that he walked the hillside with Swedberg sometime last week to find the best route to protect existing trees, about 100 of which were leveled. But Eadie said Perry did not, and could not, have the authority to approve the project.
“First Tee was definitely in conversations with Adam to build the road. They had a verbal contract with him to build this access road,” Eadie said.
Swedberg did not return messages Thursday seeking comment. The contractor told Prugh that he refuses to talk with anyone until he first speaks with his attorney, Prugh said.
Swedberg “feels like he was given a green light by Avista and urban forestry,” Prugh said. “Mistakes were made and we are going to remedy those mistakes.”
Avista spokeswoman Mary Tyrie confirmed her organization agreed to share the cost of the road with First Tee. But she insisted that no one at Avista gave Swedberg approval to move forward.
“This is our business. So we understand all of the environmental permitting, the land-use permitting and everything that needs to occur to work on our lines,” Tyrie said. “We would have gone through the normal process, notifying interested parties and stakeholders and holding public meetings in order to do this work properly.”
Avista needs an upgraded road because it plans this fall to replace the aging power poles along Latah Creek, which were installed more than 60 years ago. The project will place new poles and higher-capacity power lines to deliver more power needed for growth in the area.
Engineers looking at the new road Thursday, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for Avista, said they were surveying the problem to see if they could help the situation. But, they acknowledged that the road, as built, would provide the access they need to replace the aging power lines.
“Avista has not paid the contractor. We do not have an agreement with the contractor,” Tyrie said. “We are still working with the other two organizations trying to get to the bottom of this.”
The construction enraged Jim Wilson, president of the Friends of the Bluff, who wrote a letter to city officials about his displeasure.
“The unauthorized road construction on High Drive Bluff … is shocking to behold,” Wilson wrote. “Over a mile long, scores of trees downed, and huge amounts of earth moved. This unauthorized act may exceed, in terms of human-caused destruction, anything to befall city park land in modern times.”
Wilson demanded the city turn over any written contracts with First Tee and records of public notices and cease any negotiations or discussions regarding the planned par-3 golf course.
The Spokane Park Board had a “project license and development agreement” on its agenda for First Tee on Thursday but the board deferred it to a later time.
On Tuesday, the Park Board Golf Committee heard a presentation from First Tee about its organization and its updated proposal for the course to serve youth. But there was no mention of the road construction that had started a day earlier, said committee chair Nick Sumner. The person who provided First Tee’s presentation: Steve Prugh.
“The last thing I want to do is screw up the relationship between First Tee and the city,” Prugh said. “Everybody had the best desires to work this out beautifully. But we had this little error. I can assure you that this error will get fixed.”
John Little, 42, of Spokane, ran down the muddy track Thursday with his dog, Zorra. He remembers some 30 years ago when children ran the trails with motorcycles and hikers sometimes had to contend with gunfire.
“I grew up on these trails. So did my dad. This area is as good as it’s ever been,” Little said. “I’ve seen two dozen moose down here. It’s an environmentally sensitive area.”
The nature trails are one of the reasons that Little and several other Spokane residents choose to live on the South Hill, he said.
“It really bothers me when people circumvent legal channels to do this on our property,” he said. “This is a treasure for the entire community.”
The freshly cut road may cause further erosion, and invite vehicle trespassing and other problems, including weeds, Eadie said.
Earlier, the golf superintendent at the Qualchan course had told First Tee that it was his desire not to use the golf course driveway and access road for the three-hole junior addition.
But Eadie would have preferred repairing any damage to the golf course due to the additional access rather than have trees cut on the city conservation land.
“We never would have approved that form of access,” he said. “The damage done to the park is not going to be an easy fix.”
He said city risk management staff and an independent party will be going to the hillside to assess and document damage and that the city will aggressively pursue restoration.
Also, the state Department of Ecology is looking at the possibility that the road cut crossed into the regulated shoreline above the creek, Eadie said.
He vowed that no one, including Avista crews or First Tee, will ever get to use the road.
“If Adam (Swedberg) will share with us with his side of the story and how he thinks he got approval,” Eadie said, “then we will focus on what we do next.”