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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Mayor’s veto certainly averts one uncertainty

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

Whew. Uncertainty averted.

Maybe. Probably.

Following the mayor’s first veto, we’ll likely remain fairly certain that if a developer wants to plop 100 or 600 homes right outside city limits, and outside of the rules, they’ll be certain that they can do so with the blessing and hand-holding and concierge services offered through the County Commission – along with a nice welcome-to-the-neighborhood basket of subsidized services from city taxpayers.

We’ll be pretty certain that the battering of our battered roads, which those of us in the city limits have taxed ourselves to fix, will continue. Utilities? Our treat. We will remain safely certain that anyone who wants to plop 100 or 600 homes somewhere with a single two-lane road as an outlet or with insufficient infrastructure will be walked around the law as if it were an inconvenient hedge at a garden party.

Mayor David Condon’s veto this week overturned a City Council ordinance that would have prevented the extension of costly city services to disputed developments just outside city limits, until the disputes are resolved. This is the way it works in most places, where developments are not grandfathered in so early; in Washington, developers’ plans are “vested” the moment the county approves them, and this has led to a pattern locally of the county approving developments that are later found by the state or the courts to be improper – but which are already in place and slurping up services anyway.

Condon, the chief executive and steward of the city’s resources, has not always gone along with the county’s expansive and expensive flouting of growth law and regulations; he opposed the commissioners’ expansion of its urban growth area last year. He signed a letter to the county that put it in no uncertain terms: “(T)axpayers are burdened by the costs of extending and maintaining extra miles of roads, utility lines, pipes, pump stations and general urban services” that comes with sprawling development.

In this case, though, fears over the U-word took precedence.

“It would introduce too much uncertainty into our area’s economic growth and planning,” he said.

So we’ll stick with the certainty of the current system – probably, barring a hard-to-find fifth vote on the council – in which the county approves everything and the developers get right to work before the state or the courts can raise hell. At this point, the legitimacy of the county’s approvals must be considered very uncertain, but that kind of uncertainty isn’t to be feared apparently.

Call it the new uncertainty principle: Businesses must be able to rely on exceptions to the rules. Otherwise, who knows what kind of chaos might ensue?

This isn’t just a Spokane thing. The new uncertainty principle applies broadly to all issues touching upon the taxation and regulation of the business community. Businesses have not been hiring, because of uncertainty. The recovery is moving like a slug, because of uncertainty. Banks weren’t lending, because of uncertainty. Obamacare, you know, was making it impossible for job creators to create jobs because of the uncertainty.

You might have learned in school about the old uncertainty principle: the fact that, at the very tiniest levels – at the quantum level – we can’t measure the position or velocity of little doo-hickeys like photons, without altering the positions or velocities of photons themselves. The very fact that we’re looking alters the particles. It’s one of those fascinating and confusing side roads in modern physics, and it’s the reason that we spend a zillion dollars to build particle accelerators to study the tiny fluttering pieces of the universe. It suggests a world that is even less knowable and constant than it seems.

But that’s egghead stuff. The new and improved uncertainty principle asserts that all expenses or even potential expenses for any business – just the fear that a real-estate fee might be maintained to fund a homeless program, or that a cancer-causing emission might be limited, or that someone might take up the question of setting a fair bottom limit for the value of work – must be treated as dire, oppressive burdens. These burdens are more properly borne by the rest of the citizenry, through deliveries of service and the shouldering of tax burdens and the breathing of whatever happens to be pumped into the air. We should be happy just to contribute to the greater good.

Uncertainty is real, of course, for those of us who do and do not own businesses, and these are highly uncertain times. But it is also used frivolously and frequently as an all-purpose cover for the arguing in favor of unfettering businesses from basic responsibilities, like covering the cost of the services you use and following the law.

Condon’s veto was accompanied by some other steps. He wants to create a stronger communitywide approach to the costs and benefits of growth, which is good.

He wants to encourage, rather than legislate, cooperation with planning policies.

That kind of encouragement would indeed be nice. Perhaps it would be preferable to the political combat that has ensued over this. But there is already an encouragement in place, and it isn’t an encouragement to follow the rules, and this much is certain: The mayor’s veto strengthens it.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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