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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane closes loophole for contested developments

In a bid to curb unwanted sprawl, Spokane city leaders Monday imposed new prohibitions on extending water and sewer service to potentially contested developments outside city limits until any legal challenges are resolved.

The 4-2 vote capped a marathon evening of public testimony pitting developers and business boosters against environmental activists, planners and fiscal conservatives. Councilmen Mike Allen and Mike Fagan opposed it.

Opponents of the plan, including all three Spokane County commissioners, questioned its legality and warned it would drive away potential employers and harm the region’s overall economy. Backers, however, dismissed the criticism as unfounded and suggested that county commissioners forced the city crackdown with their repeated and improper expansions of the urban growth area that enabled developers to quickly obtain permits before legal challenges could be resolved.

“It’s a simple loophole fix,” City Councilman Jon Snyder said of the ordinance he sponsored. “We’re dealing with a county commission that over and over again has been found to be invalid in their decisions.”

Under the new plan, Spokane will wait until any legal challenges are concluded or the deadline for filing legal challenges has passed before extending water and sewer service to developments in newly expanded urban growth areas outside city limits.

Contributing to the problem are Washington state’s vesting laws, which enable developers to obtain permits that must be honored even if the urban area expansion is later overturned in a legal challenge.

Snyder and Council President Ben Stuckart said the new city ordinance simply delays the extension of city services into those newly expanded areas until any legal questions are considered. They said there have been several cases where the county’s expansions have been deemed improper but development continues anyway because of the vesting.

“The problem is when we keep spreading out further and further and further, it keeps costing us more,” Snyder said.

The move comes after a controversial county expansion last summer that the state Growth Management Board eventually ruled improper.

Spokane County commissioners in July opened 4,100 acres of rural land on the fringes of existing development in Mead, the West Plains, Spokane Valley and southeast Spokane to new residential and commercial development without following proper procedures, including efforts to give the public adequate opportunity to comment on the proposals.

A coalition of neighborhood and advocacy groups challenged the expansion and in November the state’s growth board ordered the county to hold new hearings by this June.

But developers quickly filed applications to build in the new areas and their projects will be considered vested even if the county’s expansion is later overturned. Critics call it a loophole in state law.

The latest Spokane County case even drew the attention of Gov. Jay Inslee, who ordered the state Commerce and Transportation departments to join the challenge by neighborhood groups.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French warned the city plan would hurt economic development and potential job growth: “This will place a cold chill on business recruitment and retention.”

Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn suggested the plan violates the state constitution and should have to be considered by the City Plan Commission before being brought to the council for a final vote.

Greater Spokane Incorporated, the Spokane Association of Realtors and other development groups urged the city plan be withdrawn and studied further before being brought to a vote.

But neighborhood groups and environmental advocates urged its passage, noting that city services are being stretched too thin trying to accommodate questionable fringe growth.

Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney and executive director of the Center for Justice, dismissed suggestions that the plan was illegal, noting it doesn’t refuse service, just delays it until legal concerns can be reviewed.

Allen voted against the measure but said Monday night he agreed that some of the county’s zoning decisions accelerating urban development outside city limits have been harmful.

“Poor development has scarred a lot of people in our community,” Allen said, noting that he’s troubled by the ability of developers to get permits vested during legal challenges.

But he said he felt the plan should have been more thoroughly studied before being brought to a final vote.