Just outside the window of the Liberty Lake mayor’s office, a golf ball rests in bright green, well-trimmed grass, fresh from its trip from a nearby city-owned driving range to the roof of City Hall.
Ten years ago, there was an expanse of weeds where this building now stands. Ten years ago, the city of Liberty Lake was still just an idea. And 10 years ago, Mayor Steve Peterson wasn’t even living here.
“I see my job as making Liberty Lake the premier address in Spokane County,” Peterson said while seated in his well-organized, tidy office. An aerial photo poster of the city rests on a chair, and in a corner, a gold-plated shovel still dirty from its last groundbreaking awaits a new project.
The fledgling city is well on its way to becoming one of the most influential communities in the region. As it celebrates its fifth anniversary this month, the city has an impressive list of accomplishments, and Peterson, 56, has been a force behind most of them. The message to the region is clear: Liberty Lake means business, and Peterson isn’t afraid to do what it takes to put his city at the top of the pack.
The mayor has pushed for new taxing legislation that will pay for a new freeway interchange and help attract more retailers. He’s encouraged a trails and parks system that links the town and includes a pedestrian bridge spanning the interstate. Residents formed their own library and broke away from the Spokane County system. He oversaw the formation of a 10-person full-time police force and pushed for an annexation that nearly doubled the size of the town.
Taking office with no political experience to speak of, Peterson has been a lightning rod for the city, sometimes taking criticism for his style while being praised for bringing economic success to the growing city and its residents. When it formed, Liberty Lake had about 3,300 residents. This year, population topped out at 6,550 and in 2011, the city expects to have 8,765 people. Two developments were announced in the last week that will see 4,600 new homes.
The city has 5,000 people working within its limits, and major companies like Itron and Huntwood – the largest manufacturer in Spokane County – are adding more workers.
Dealing with one of the fastest growing communities in the region has been the biggest challenge the city has faced, Peterson said. The manner in which the city has handled its population and wealth explosion has been both praised and criticized by community members.
Peterson points to figures like those gathered by the U.S. Census as evidence that the quality of life in the city is high. The city’s ZIP code, which includes the roughly 2,000 people in unincorporated land surrounding Liberty Lake, ranks highest in the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene area in median home values, median monthly mortgage payments and the highest per capita income. The area also has the highest percentage of people making more than $150,000 a year and the lowest poverty rate.
But critics like Paul Shields, who lives on Liberty Lake outside city limits, says the city’s stance on growth – and Peterson’s style of communication – have caused a rift that separates the city from the so-called “Lake People,” residents around Liberty Lake who did not join the city during incorporation so they could keep the rural land-use restrictions handed down from Spokane County.
Shields, a frequent critic of the city, said though Liberty Lake has done a good job recently with its parks and police force, the city has an overly accommodating attitude toward growth.
“They’re not in step at all with the public with the rate of growth they’re encouraging,” Shields said. “They need to get a better handle on it, and they need to listen more to the people and less to the developers.”
Peterson himself became a polarizing figure for some residents, particularly those that resist growth. The mayor openly took on the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District by trying to merge the district into the city and by supporting pro-city candidates to run for commissioner. The special-purpose district was formed in 1973 and for many years was the only local governmental agency representing citizens in the area. Many longtime lake residents continue to put their governmental trust into the district.
“I think there would be a chance that the people around the lake would try to annex into the city, but as long as the mayor is there, I question that,” said sewer commissioner Harley Halverson. “The trust has been badly hurt both ways. The city doesn’t trust the district and probably doesn’t trust most of the lake people, and I think the lake people are not trusting the city either.”
People around the lake are skeptical of joining a city that seems to be expanding vastly in population, as many want to preserve their lake lifestyles and don’t want to see their hillsides marred by expanded development, Halverson said.
Lately, Halverson has been proposing more cooperation between the city and the district, even writing a column in the community newspaper calling for discussion of annexing the lake into the city.
“I think it’s essential that we not do anything to create more tension,” Halverson said. “We’ve got to start doing something to work together.”
Many government entities that have had to work with Liberty Lake seemed to come away with a feeling of heartburn during the city’s early years. Spokane County saw a large chunk of its tax revenue disappear when the city formed, and the city of Spokane Valley fought Liberty Lake’s attempts to annex land at the northwest corner of the city.
Though Peterson handles City Council meetings with a quiet, almost shy-sounding voice, he can make his thoughts known – loudly if need be. In the past, Peterson and sewer commissioners would engage in shouting matches at council meetings and campaigns for sewer commissioner positions became personal. Since the beginning of the year, Peterson has tempered his frustrations.
Peterson acknowledges his abrasive style, labeling his personality more like that of a mechanic.
“I have a gruff personality, but I’m not a scary person,” Peterson said. The mayor needs to take a fighting stance for his city, and Peterson said he believes his leadership means standing out in the front and taking the heat.
“You work for your community and you fight for what your community deserves,” he said.
Part of that fight means dealing with growth that Peterson said is inevitable. By having local control of development, the city can better suit new construction to fit its plan.
Peterson points to the Legacy Ridge development by Marshall Chesrown as an example of the city’s ability to negotiate with developers. Chesrown was originally platted for 650 houses, but the city worked with him to reduce the number to 543. Though in its infancy now, the development will soon feature appropriate landscaping and amenities, Peterson said.
With the announcement of a 1,600 home expansion of Legacy Ridge last week, Peterson said the city will continue to work with Chesrown to keep the development in line with community values.
“In our dealings with him, he’s been a partner, he looks at what his development does for a community,” Peterson said.
Working with developers is part of the city’s vision for the future, Peterson said. Liberty Lake recently adopted new standards to ensure big box retailers don’t build cheap cinderblock cubes, and Peterson has taken a leading role in trying to enact impact fees on new construction.
“The city is a good partner. Some on the outside don’t believe that, but that’s the reality,” he said. “Everybody wants to go back 30 years to when they first moved in. You’re not going to go back there. Everybody is going to go forward.”
Former city administrator Lewis Griffin, whose position Peterson eliminated in 2005, said the mayor tends to take a CEO-like approach to his job.
“He’s a good man and he’s trying his best to do the right thing,” Griffin said. “Even when I was there, he was very hands on.”
Peterson works in a strong-mayor form of government and has a staff that reports to him.
Peterson is no stranger to master-planned communities like Liberty Lake. He grew up in Normandy Park, a Puget Sound community that incorporated in the 1950s, ironically to avoid a county requirement to connect to sewers.
He graduated from Arizona State University in 1973 and then worked as a marketing and sales representative for various companies before becoming a pharmaceutical drug sales rep in 1990. Peterson uses some of those marketing skills when he speaks with potential employers and businesses moving to the city. Though he stops short of calling it “recruiting,” Peterson said he likes to let companies know what the city has to offer.
Peterson moved to Liberty Lake in 1997 for work, settling with his wife, Charmaine, in a house that overlooks MeadowWood Golf Course. They have three children and a chihuahua, Pecos, who has become a local celebrity with his appearances at city meetings and a profile in the Liberty Lake newspaper. Peterson became mayor in 2001. He earns $9,000 in his position managing the city, but continues to work as a drug sales rep for Aventis Pharmaceuticals.
“We all had a lot to learn, none of us knew what it was like to be an elected official,” said City Councilman Brian Sayrs, who was elected with Peterson in 2001. “Over time, people’s approach to problems changes because they learn how better to represent themselves and to make positive change in the community.”
He said Peterson has tempered his tone and disagreements are no longer blowups.
“He and I don’t always see eye to eye, I think that’s clear. The fact is, even when we disagree, we disagree respectfully,” Sayrs said. “The things that were frustrating for us early on wouldn’t be a problem for us now because we’ve simply learned to respect each other’s intentions.”
Peterson has become less controversial to outsiders.
“They’ve gotten over that first big boom of success, now they have to run a city,” Shields said. “By tempering their stand on polarizing issues, they’re doing a far better job than they were a year ago.”
Peterson himself said he’s learned how to make the right political moves in the last five years. “I may have got a little touchy-feely over time,” he said. Though rumors said he would not seek re-election, he said he’s likely to run again.
“I like this a lot,” he said. “I like this position, I like the people and the community.”
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