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Workers wrap up restoration of illegal bluff road as legal battle continues

Workers last week completed restoration of the bluff above Latah Creek where a contractor bulldozed a 1.3 mile-long road earlier this spring, prompting outcry from trail users and legal action from landowners.

The firm Land Expressions, based in Mead, was charged with planting 900 small saplings, called “plugs,” and replacing dirt to recapture the hill’s natural topography. A crew has been working backward from the southern edge of the road, which ended near the Qualchan links at the proposed location of a three-hole golf course that has been put on hold following the bulldozing controversy.

The course’s would-be builders, the nonprofit First Tee of the Inland Northwest, have been named as third-party defendants in a lawsuit filed by Randall Bracher, whose family owns a 30-acre plot where the road ended, against Swedberg Contracting Corp., the firm responsible for digging the road.

Jim Wilson, president of the conservationist group Friends of the Bluff, toured the work with representatives of Avista Corp., who had agreed to share the costs of the bulldozed road to provide access for power line repair along the bluff. The organization would have preferred larger tree plantings, Wilson said, but he praised the speed of the work.

“I don’t think we can have any complaints about how fast they did it,” he said.

City Councilman Breean Beggs, who, along with colleague Lori Kinnear, pressed for swift restoration of the bluff, also praised the quick turnaround by crews and Avista.

“I don’t think it could have gone any better,” Beggs said. “Everyone agreed to just get it done, and talk about the legal stuff later, and not sacrifice the land for that to happen.”

Swedberg has answered the lawsuit from the Brachers, stating that the contractor was working on the authority of First Tee to begin carving the road. The city has said that it offered approval only for the removal of some trees, not the construction of the road, when work began.

The Brachers, who had been exploring a possible sale of their land to the city to conserve as part of the 500 acres of forested land with meandering trails that sits between High Drive and Latah Creek, signed an agreement with Avista to allow restoration on their land last month. The family had initially retained a separate landscape expert who advised against tree planting this summer, but agreed to allow Avista access to speed up the restoration process.

“The Bracher family very much recognizes the strong desire on behalf of the public to begin remediation work and restore public access as soon as possible,” Ryan Yahne, one of the attorneys representing the family, said in a written statement last month.

With their approval for restoration work headed by Avista, the Brachers requested discussions with the city to lease their property. Stacy Bjordahl, another attorney for the family, said in an emailed statement Friday the Brachers have twice forwarded proposals to the city to lease their land, without a formal response.

“At this time, the Brachers are waiting for a response from the City to indicate if the City desires to secure a long-term solution for public access to the property or not,” Bjordahl wrote.

Both the Brachers and the Friends of the Bluff raised concerns as the restoration plan was being developed that planting now, rather than in the fall, could expose young trees and grass to the extreme heat and dryness of a Spokane summer. Avista has agreed to monitor the area throughout the summer, and a Land Expressions crew on the site Thursday said they’d return in the fall and after to re-seed in the event of plant die-off.

Bruce Howard, Avista’s director of environmental affairs, said the company will turn over monitoring to the city this fall, which is expected to last five years. The company has already paid $20,000 for the restoration, not including extensive work done in the past two weeks, Howard said.

The city and Avista are tracking their expenses, but neither have been named in or initiated lawsuits to date.

Wilson said his group would explore with Avista the possibility of aiding in watering efforts over the summer, but wasn’t sure of the details yet.

“It’ll be interesting to see in 40 days how everything looks, in a relatively sunny and exposed area,” he said.

Many of the trees felled during construction lay over the former road’s path, and crews have hydroseeded to promote grass growth. Signs created by the Parks Department urge bluff visitors to use existing trails rather than the road to promote plant growth, including the plugs, which have been surrounded by white netting that is biodegradable, the Land Expressions crew said.

The road, which was used briefly by runners and cyclists following its construction in April, saw no users during a two-hour period of relatively overcast weather Thursday morning.

The next hearing date in the legal case surrounding the bluff has been scheduled in Judge Raymond Clary’s courtroom late next month, Yahne said.



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Then and Now: Comstock Park

James M. Comstock, born in 1838 in Wisconsin, arrived in Spokane in time to witness the great fire of 1889 and start Spokane Dry Goods with Robert Paterson. It became the Crescent, Spokane’s premier department store for a century. He also worked in real estate and owned other businesses. He served a term as Spokane mayor, starting in 1899. James Comstock died in 1918.