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Spokane halts golf course plans at center of South Hill road controversy, moves toward restoring bluff

Avista Utilities Corp. is moving forward with plans to restore areas of the bluff near High Drive following construction of an illegal access road on the property earlier this year. (Liz Kishimoto / The Spokesman-Review)
Avista Utilities Corp. is moving forward with plans to restore areas of the bluff near High Drive following construction of an illegal access road on the property earlier this year. (Liz Kishimoto / The Spokesman-Review)

Plans for a three-hole golf course operated by a Spokane youth golf nonprofit have been put on hold as crews ready to repair damage caused by an illegal road cut into the bluff on the South Hill.

The private landowners that saw the road cut about a mile into their property near Latah Creek have requested a delay in the restoration until this fall, when they say weather conditions will be more favorable to replace felled trees and plants.

The Spokane Park Board this week sent back a proposal by nonprofit First Tee to build and operate the course near the Qualchan links in Hangman Valley. The panel had been set to consider the proposal when contractor Swedberg Contracting Corp. began building the road in a popular biking and hiking area south of High Drive in April.

Kelsey Parker, executive director of First Tee of the Inland Northwest, said Friday that the decision was “disappointing” but the nonprofit is working with the city and Avista Utilities Corp. to assist restoration efforts.

“We have always been strong collaborators with the city, and we will do what they believe is best,” Parker said.

A tree removal permit sought by First Tee was revoked in the days following construction of the road. The work prompted an outcry from neighborhood residents and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

Avista has submitted a draft proposal for restoring portions of the bluff affected by the road that could be completed as early as the first week of June. They’ve hired Land Expressions, the Mead-based firm responsible for building the Gathering Place plaza near City Hall, to complete the work. Speed Fitzhugh, Spokane River license manager for Avista, said the company is planning on moving forward with restoration work at the site beginning next week.

“We have all the permits necessary for the project to continue right now,” Fitzhugh said Friday.

Bracher Propties LLC of Ketchum, Idaho, owners of the roughly 30-acre swath of undeveloped land where the bulldozed road ended, is asking Avista’s plans be put on hold until the fall. The landscape restoration firm Bracher asked to survey the property wrote in a letter to Avista the delay would allow for more favorable weather for new plantings to survive.

“Based upon my site observations and third party information, there is no immediate need to undertake restoration activities,” wrote Jim Flott, president of Community Forestry Consultants.

Bracher has filed a lawsuit against Swedberg. Swedberg has provided documentation indicating the city and Avista approved the work, but park officials have said they only approved removal of some trees, not the construction of the road.

Avista wants to plant about 900 Ponderosa pine “plugs” to replace trees removed during the carving of the road, Fitzhugh said. The plugs can range from eight to 20 inches in length.

Jim Wilson, president of the conservation group Friends of the Bluff, said in written comments to Avista and in an interview Friday the proposal appeared to be based on potential costs, and not restoring the area to the forested level that existed before the roadwork began.

“Planting small 12-inch seedling trees will deny the public from restoration for a longer period of time than more mature trees in the 6-foot to 10-foot range,” Wilson wrote in his letter to Avista.

The area does not have access to irrigation, city and Avista officials said this week, which drastically reduces the likelihood larger trees would survive a dry summer.

Wilson said he wasn’t opposed to delaying the work, but he’s uncertain if all members of the conservation group could get on board with the delay. Waiting until the fall, as requested by owners of the Bracher property, would allow Avista to restore soil at the end of the road and work backward, which would reduce potential further damage to the surrounding bluff areas, Wilson said.

“Now you’re going to have to come across the (Qualchan) golf course, go to their property edge and work your way back. That’s going to require heavy equipment,” Wilson said.

Avista will not work on the Bracher property unless the utility can work out an agreement with the owners, Fitzhugh said.

The bulldozed road would have provided Avista with access to complete work on a transmission line in the area. Mary Tyrie, an Avista spokeswoman, said Friday the utility will meet with local residents in the next few weeks to determine a new access route so that work can still be completed by the end of this year.

The City of Spokane is still calculating what damages could be sought in any potential legal action against the contractor and First Tee, Parks Director Leroy Eadie in a meeting with City Council members on Thursday. Avista is keeping track of the restoration expenses, Eadie told council members.

“We’re still completely pursuing all our legal options that are available to us,” Eadie said.


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