In nearly opposite rulings, two judges have concluded that Spokane Valley’s Ponderosa area must have a third fire exit before additional houses are built, and that there is no basis for such a requirement.
Spokane County Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor said in an order filed last week that sponsors of a proposed subdivision failed their duty to provide adequate exit roads in case there’s a wildfire or some other emergency.
O’Connor dismissed an appeal by Bryan Walker’s Landworks Development Inc. and property owner Ponderosa Properties for a 45-lot Ponderosa Estates North subdivision they want to build on 15.2 acres at 3310 S. Ridgeview Drive.
The judge said she agreed with arguments presented by the city and the Ponderosa Properties Homeowners Association.
O’Connor’s decision came two weeks after Superior Court Judge Greg Sypolt said in another case that Hearing Examiner Michael Dempsey improperly blocked the Ponderosa PUD subdivision on grounds that the Ponderosa area can’t be evacuated in 30 minutes.
In both cases, Dempsey cited the 1991 firestorm in which 14 homes were destroyed and 105 were threatened when a three square-mile swath of the Ponderosa neighborhood was charred. More than 2,500 Ponderosa residents were forced to evacuate.
“Residents received word to leave their homes 1 1/2 hours after the fire started, and 30 minutes later flames raced up a slope to reach the first homes that were damaged,” Dempsey wrote in both his Ponderosa Estates North and Ponderosa PUD decisions.
Even so, Dempsey had no legal basis for imposing a 30-minute evacuation standard, Sypolt said in a letter outlining his decision. Moreover, Sypolt said Dempsey didn’t have enough evidence that the area couldn’t be evacuated in 30 minutes.
His ruling isn’t official yet because it hasn’t been reduced to a formal order. When the order is filed, Dempsey will be obliged to approve Lanzce Douglass’ plans for Ponderosa PUD, an 81-lot housing development on 17 acres along the south side of 44th Avenue, west of Farr Road.
Dempsey’s November 2007 decision, in an appeal by the Ponderosa Neighborhood Association, overturned a Spokane Valley Planning Department declaration that Douglass’ project would have no environmental significance. Dempsey ordered a full environmental impact statement to address fire-safety issues.
Douglass’ legal challenge went straight to Superior Court while Walker’s got there after he lost in appeals to Dempsey and the City Council. Dempsey ruled on Walker’s Ponderosa Estates North project in August 2007, and the City Council upheld the decision in December 2007.
Spokane Valley City Attorney Mike Connelly said city officials have made no decision on whether to appeal Sypolt’s ruling. He declined to comment on the ruling except to caution against too close a comparison with O’Connor’s decision.
Sypolt based his decision on several points of law, but said Dempsey’s adoption of a 30-minute evacuation standard was “at the center of this controversy.”
O’Connor also saw emergency evacuation as the key issue. Her brief order said Landworks Development failed to “make appropriate provisions … regarding evacuation in the event of a wildfire or other emergency.”
Landworks attorney Stacy Bjordahl said no decision had been made on whether to appeal O’Connor’s decision.
With one judge saying it’s OK for the hearing examiner to fashion a fire standard and another in the same courthouse saying it isn’t, “we’re in a bit of a quandary,” Bjordahl said.
“I’d like to see, probably, both of them go up on appeal,” she said.
Bjordahl thought the Washington Court of Appeals would consolidate the cases for a decision that provides clearer guidance.
Ultimately, she said, “the resolution is for there to be clear-cut rules adopted by the local jurisdiction, because right now it’s silent.”
Spokane Valley not only hasn’t declared a construction moratorium in the Ponderosa area, but city officials continue to issue building permits and short plats for small-scale housing projects, Bjordahl said.
Although the municipal fire code sets egress standards for individual subdivisions, there is no standard for an entire neighborhood such as the Ponderosa area.
“One developer can’t be responsible for figuring out how to evacuate 2,500 people,” Bjordahl said.
If the Ponderosa neighborhood needs a third egress road, the city and the autonomous Spokane Valley Fire Department should step up with a plan that spreads the cost among all the beneficiaries, Bjordahl suggested.
O’Connor’s order says Dempsey and the Spokane Valley City Council, which denied Landworks’ first appeal of Dempsey’s ruling, “heard substantial evidence” to justify their decisions.
In both the Ponderosa Estates North and Ponderosa PUD proposals, Dempsey cited a traffic study that showed the Ponderosa neighborhood couldn’t be evacuated in a half-hour – even without considering factors that would make the problem worse.
Dempsey also based his decisions on the recommendation of the Spokane Valley Fire Department and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich that no more houses should be allowed in the Ponderosa area until a third access road is built.
In addition, Dempsey cited an article by a wildfire expert who emphasized the need to evacuate communities in no more than 30 minutes.
The author, Thomas Cova, an associate professor at the University of Utah, recommended a minimum of four exit roads in “wildland-urban interface communities” of more than 600 households. The Ponderosa area has more than twice that number of households and only two exits, Cova noted.
Testifying on behalf of the Ponderosa Neighborhood Association, Cova said he had never seen a fire-prone community with so many houses and so few exits. He testified that most of the communities he had studied had about 200 homes per exit, but Ponderosa already had about 600 per exit.
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