Spokane County’s urban growth area likely will be growing itself.
The county is preparing to update its plan for how the metropolitan area will develop, and early indications from planning staff and county commissioners are that they want to bump out the urban growth boundary by 11 square miles.
That boundary, established in 2001, is the dividing line between where spread-out rural development and denser urban development are supposed to take place. This is the first time it will be reviewed.
The process likely will last until late next year.
Building and Planning Director Jim Manson is predicting that Spokane County’s population will grow from about 450,000 people now to 650,000 by 2025 – the high end of the state Office of Financial Management’s forecasts for the area.
And, Manson said, those people will need land.
So he is recommending that 11.6 square miles be added to the county’s urban growth area to increase areas available for housing and make room for everyone.
The urban growth area – which includes Spokane, Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake, Millwood, Airway Heights and some unincorporated land – totals 157 square miles now.
Commissioner Phil Harris said a lack of available lots to build on is causing housing prices to increase.
“They try to pack people all into that area. It’s just not working,” Harris said, adding, “I don’t think we can wait to add property to the urban growth boundary.”
Limited land availability within the urban growth area is a prime factor in rising home prices, said David Crosby, president of the Spokane Association of Realtors board of directors.
The median price of a home in Spokane County was $129,000 last year, up 7.5 percent from $119,900 in 2003.
Crosby, who represents home buyers, said the urban growth boundary also has created a market in which fewer desirable new homes and lots are available.
“The No. 1 thing I hear is: ‘We want a little bit of property. We want to be close in on an acre to two acres,’ ” he said, adding that such properties are becoming increasingly expensive.
In a briefing paper Manson provided to commissioners, he urged them to reduce regulatory barriers to housing development and asked, “If services can be provided to a given area, what is wrong with expanding the urban growth area?”
Some would answer “sprawl.”
Spokane’s sprawl is second only to Boise’s in the Pacific Northwest, according to Clark Williams-Derry, research director for Northwest Environment Watch.
Sprawl makes it more expensive to provide urban services and increases public reliance on cars, Williams-Derry said.
“Are you locking your citizens into major fuel expenditures that they won’t want?” he asked.
In 2000, just 10 percent of Spokane County residents lived in areas with at least 12 people per acre, compared with 24 percent in the three urban counties around Seattle and 28 percent in the three Oregon counties surrounding Portland.
Using Manson’s calculations, Spokane’s sprawl is likely to increase. The formula he used to determine how much more land should be added to the county’s urban growth area called for fewer than 10 residents per acre.
According to Williams-Derry, 12 people per acre are necessary to support urban services such as public transportation.
“Density doesn’t increase housing prices, but it does increase the price of a yard,” he said.
Individual neighborhood planning also could be on the chopping block. Neighborhood groups have been waiting for a chance to influence development in their specific areas.
“It’s an expenditure of public funds, and this benefit may not extend to the entire public,” said Manson.
Commissioners agreed that while they support neighborhood planning efforts, such planning is not mandated by the state’s Growth Management Act and the county shouldn’t fund it.
Neighborhoods are free to initiate planning at their own expense, said Commissioner Todd Mielke.
Commissioner Mark Richard said neighborhood planning should have taken place before the comprehensive plan was adopted, but Harris pointed out that commissioners at the time postponed neighborhood planning until after the comprehensive plan was in place.
Richard argued that the best way to help neighborhoods is to get them involved in the comprehensive planning process through better notification.
Easier said than done, said Harris.
“If people get notices in the mailbox and throw them away, there’s no way we can get a Gestapo team out there to drag people to meetings,” he said.
Richard said he also will push for the additional urban growth areas to be within the county’s service area, not Spokane’s – a move that is likely to be resisted by the city of Spokane, which has battled the county over previous comprehensive plan population allocations.
Richard said the city has been unwilling to extend water and sewer services without annexation.
“Until we can resolve this issue with the city of Spokane, we’re going to need to lean toward those areas where we provide services,” Richard said.
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