In the early 1900s, Liberty Lake was a premier playground known as “Spokane’s Inland Seashore.” A century later, it’s one of the region’s newest cities and among its fastest growing.
Since incorporating in August 2001, the city’s population has grown by about 25 percent annually. Today the city has 5,090 residents and Liberty Lake is facing all the benefits and challenges of rapid growth. New residents are flocking to the town for its recreational opportunities and small-town atmosphere, and that means schools are full and the city is nearing its maximum sewer capacity.
Liberty Lake’s acres of tree-lined residential neighborhoods stand in contrast to the past, when a handful of resorts played host to thousands of people who rode a Spokane Inland Empire Railway train from Spokane to cool off in the lake during the first part of the 20th century.
In those days, cars were rare, and Liberty Lake offered a fanciful package that included boat rentals, beaches and dining on Rhode Island Red chicken dinners. A dance platform extended over the water at Liberty Lake Park and couples swayed to big band classics that echoed across the lake.
“The one thing that has always stayed true to Liberty Lake is it has always been a place that’s got a lot of recreational opportunities,” said Ross Schneidmiller, a historian and lifetime resident who lives near the lake.
Years ago, the lake was a main attraction. Today it’s a piece of the recreational pie that includes three golf courses, miles of bicycle trails and Pavillion Park.
After new-home construction took off in the 1990s, the city’s quality of life started attracting people from around the country.
Today, it has an incorporated population of 5,090 and 2,000 more people living outside the city limits. The city’s budget has increased from $3 million to $8.2 million this year.
Ironically, the lake that defined the community now lies outside the city’s boundaries. Pre-incorporation surveys and meetings found that most lakeside residents opposed becoming part of the city because they thought it would open the door to zoning changes.
Kathy Norman and her husband moved from Los Angeles to the area 12 years ago. They live outside the city on the lake and have watched the population increase dramatically.
“At first we weren’t real happy with the growth. I’m accepting it, because with any thriving community you have to have growth,” she said.
Norman said many newcomers move to Liberty Lake from bigger cities to relish the safety and connectedness of the small community.
“The people want that closeness – that little township. Even the new blood that’s coming in, it’s like they already know they want to be part of this friendly community.”
When Liberty Lake incorporated, it had new streets, an elaborate trail system and Pavillion Park. It also inherited a significant tax base that was provided through local industry.
“They didn’t have a lot of the problems that a lot of older communities would have,” county Commissioner Kate McCaslin said. “They started off with a good position because of their infrastructure.”
Government officials share a vision for a safe, interconnected community with top schools and services and recreational opportunities for people of all ages.
Since incorporation, the city has purchased Trailhead Golf Course for its parks department and expanded a volunteer-operated book room into an Internet-connected, multimedia municipal library.
After deciding that contracting police services through Spokane County wouldn’t be affordable for round-the-clock protection, the city started a police force that grew from zero to six officers in two years.
“The significant thread through the city’s history is we’ve been able to provide a higher level of service for the money,” city Planning Director Doug Smith said.
While providing new services and acquiring assets, Liberty Lake cut taxes three times. The money saved, according to Arlene Fisher, director of finance, gave families of four enough of a windfall to “have a nice evening out.”
Officials socked away $600,000 in reserves, carried more than $1 million from last year’s budget to this year’s to finance projects, and approved the purchase of a $925,000 building to house City Hall and the police department.
The plan is to develop a civic complex with a combination library and community center that serves espresso.
Liberty Lake’s desire to enlarge its tax base and create model services occasionally creates conflicts.
The city has found itself challenged by the city of Spokane Valley over its comprehensive plan, and Liberty Lake officials believe the challenge is connected to its bid to annex 650 acres of commercially viable land between the two cities. In addition, the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District has sued the city over its attempts to take over the district.
John Maxwell, a principal with Economic and Engineering Services, is one of several consultants hired by Liberty Lake to study the feasibility of taking over the sewer district.
Engineers are putting together information about maximizing the sewer and water district’s efficiency and saving money.
“We are looking for issues of common benefit for both parties and hoping to target a win-win agreement,” Maxwell said.
While the disagreement has ruffled feathers, it hasn’t ruined Liberty Lake’s small-town flavor.
Norman, who works in the city at Liberty Cleaners, said there’s a trust among neighbors that’s rare.
“We know the customers, and we know them by name. There’s an integrity about the community. I take checks, and I don’t ask for ID because it’s that kind of a community,” Norman said.
A constant throughout the community’s history is that residents and visitors share a passion for recreation.
Schneidmiller and his wife, Kelli Schneidmiller, are historians. Kelli is a fifth-generation member of the Knudsen family, which moved to the Liberty Lake area in 1889. Over the years, the couple amassed a collection of historical photos and accounts of the area’s past.
In the early 1900s, as many as five resorts offered boat rentals and other amenities, Ross Schneidmiller said. “Back in those days, when fishing season would open, people would say they felt like they could walk across the lake going from boat to boat.”
Robin Briley, of Peak Video Productions, which made the historical video “Liberty Lake: Spokane’s Inland Sea Shore,” said more than 20 trainloads of people visited the lake daily in 1911.
“There are still a lot of people who have fond memories of Liberty Lake,” Briley said. She said the area’s popularity declined in the 1950s when more people purchased cars, which gave them access to lakes that were farther away.
After MeadowWood Golf Course was created and homes started springing up in the late 1980s, the area started attracting more home buyers. Today, property is a hot commodity.
“It’s a very desirable community, and things are moving fast,” said Mike Balogh, a resident who sells Liberty Lake real estate for Re/Max of Spokane. “You don’t see a lot of communities in the United States like this. It just has so much to offer.”
Jim Norbury moved to Liberty Lake two years ago to live near his daughter and her family. After living in Seattle for 40 years, the retiree enjoys Liberty Lake’s slower pace and nearby golf courses, which he regularly plays.
“It’s a nice town. It’s quiet and peaceful, and they have nice parks and a water park for the kids,” Norbury said.
Liberty Lake’s demographics are unique in the region. A survey comparing the city with 2000 census information about Spokane County showed that Liberty Lake has more two-parent households with children younger than 18, a higher-than-average median income and more people with bachelor’s degrees or higher levels of education.
John Ellis, his fiancée, Amanda Hamilton, and their four children recently moved to Liberty Lake from the Tri-Cities. After viewing homes in several Spokane neighborhoods, they rented a place near Pavillion Park. Hamilton works in Liberty Lake at Aegis Mortgage Corp., and Ellis commutes throughout the Northwest as regional sales manager for U.S. Linen and Uniform.
“I drove out here and I saw all these kids riding bikes and the park full of people nearby and thought, This is it,’ ” Hamilton said.
Although the couple have only lived in the area for a month, they’re already impressed. “It’s everything I want it to be,” said Ellis, who enjoys the city’s friendly people.
Liberty Lake’s most daunting challenge is a regional water crisis that threatens to thwart rapid growth.
Two developments, Legacy Ridge and Rocky Hill, are expected to add a total of 1,000 homes, beginning in the coming months. While water rights are assured for the homes, the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District will exceed its remaining capacity within a year if every platted home is built.
The district has plans pending for a new plant that will add sewer capacity of 1 million gallons a day; however, testing recently determined that discharges are compromising the dissolved oxygen levels in the Spokane River.
Like other dischargers, the district is awaiting Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for the river’s “total maximum daily load.” Those standards are expected to be established in 2005 and will determine amounts of pollutants that can be discharged.
“That’s why you’re not seeing any permits actually being issued, because we have this huge issue we’re dealing with,” said Jani Gilbert, DOE spokeswoman.
Another challenge is the city’s growing population of school-age children. Liberty Lake Elementary School is at capacity, and city officials have met with Central Valley School District administrators during the past year to address the need for a second elementary school, Mayor Steve Peterson said. “They understand that this is the fastest growing hub within their area.”
Recently, a Central Valley School District committee recommended that within the next five years the district build a school in Liberty Lake to serve grades 4 to 8 and another elementary school in the northeast corner of its boundaries to serve students from Liberty Lake and Greenacres. The district is considering those recommendations.
Schneidmiller said although community members may not always agree on how to solve problems, they share a heart for preserving Liberty Lake’s natural attributes.
“There have always been differences of opinion, and there have always been people who have a passion for quality of life. It’s not only a connection between the county and the city – it’s a common thread in Liberty Lake’s past and where it is today.”
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