Personal insults flew Tuesday in a hearing over a would-be South Hill subdivision when a developer’s attorney said Spokane County’s Hearing Examiner didn’t know his job and faulted a Spokane city engineer for “dog-and-pony-show” tactics.
In the end, attorney Michael Murphy told the Spokane County Commission that regulatory strings tied to the approval the 161-home, 99-apartment Southridge Development were rooted in neighborhood concerns, not facts. Southridge would be located at the southeast corner of Havana Road and East 29th Avenue, just outside Spokane city limits.
Murphy spoke to commissioners during the appeal of a January decision on Southridge by Michael Dempsey, hearing examiner for both Spokane County and Spokane Valley. Dempsey was not present for his decision’s appeal. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
After asserting repeatedly that the caveats attached to the project’s approval were unfounded, Murphy was asked by County Commissioner Mark Richard to speculate about why Dempsey ruled the way he did.
“He may not understand his job,” Murphy said. “His job is to weigh the evidence. But what we’re seeing here, he is failing on the technical issues.”
The attorney’s remarks drew groans from an audience of 50 people, many of whom are neighbors to the 52-acre lot for which Southridge is proposed. The lot features more than an acre of wetlands and borders a street that seasonally floods. Neighbors feared those and other land conditions, and traffic, weren’t being addressed by the county planners or the developers, Cliff Cameron and Lanzce Douglas.
Neighbors hired their own engineers and biologists and challenged the project last year after it appeared that the developers, with the approval of county planning officials, were going to do less than adjoining residents thought necessary.
The neighborhood prevailed, based on its own experts’ testimony and support from Spokane’s city engineer, Valla Melvin, who alleged the developers used flawed computer software to project the consequences of Southridge traffic on nearby streets.
There was a spool of strings attached to Dempsey’s approval, including flash flood studies and a hunt for fairy shrimp, an endangered species thought to be living in Southridge wetlands.
Murphy called Melvin’s questions of Southridge’s traffic study a “dog-and-pony show” that misled the hearing examiner. A $40,000 fee to mitigate traffic impacts of Southridge surfaced as a result of Melvin’s testimony last December. Murphy suggested the city was looking for easy money.
But Southridge neighbors brought their own attorney to Tuesday’s appeal. Todd Hume told county commissioners that necessary facts were in place to back Dempsey’s decision. And he reminded commissioners that it was the developer, not the neighborhood, who appealed Dempsey’s decision, which essentially gave Southridge the right to proceed with caution.
“These people are not the not-in my-backyard types. If they were, they would have appealed,” Hume said. “I think it’s important to understand that these people don’t have the intention of slowing development.”
The testimony of the two sides differed down to their visual graphics. Murphy used a colored map of Southridge that showed a few cul-de-sacs spread across ample green space. Hume used the official county overlay of the project that showed 5.6 homes per acre and large pools of water uphill from the building lots. He submitted a 50-year-old photograph of two people floating a skiff on the property during a flood.
Murphy emphasized that a 75-foot buffer would keep development from the wetlands.
County commissioners took the appeal under advisement and won’t rule for about three weeks.
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