Opponents of Spokane County’s plans to expand areas where urban growth can occur say they’re concerned about the hiring of an attorney with strong ties to developers.
In January, county commissioners approved the hiring of Stacy Bjordahl to consult with them on growth planning matters. The private practice land-use attorney is paid $200 an hour for services including mediation, negotiation and settlements.
The decision has created some ill will among neighborhood activists pushing to protect areas outside Spokane and Spokane Valley from urban development.
Four challenges have been brought against the county contesting its most recent choices about where urban-style development should occur in unincorporated areas of the county, chiefly bordering the city of Spokane to the north and areas southeast of Spokane Valley.
Those complaints allege the county expanded the growth area without taking enough public input on the effects on the environment or public services like schools and law enforcement, while also promising infrastructure like sewer and roads to private developers at public expense. County commissioners say they followed state law in expanding the boundary and that developers are responsible for the costs of those services.
The cases are set for mediation in May, and the county’s opponents worry that Bjordahl’s involvement in negotiations will tilt the already favorable position with developers even further.
“It’s incestuous,” said Dave Bricklin, a Seattle attorney who’s fought on behalf of several area groups to protect land from development, including a proposed expansion at Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park. “I’m sure that after this she’s going to go back to work for the development community.”
Bjordahl was not available for comment despite repeated attempts to reach her.
Among her clients are developers interested in building a controversial apartment complex near Wandermere Golf Course and Central Pre-Mix, which has voiced strong opposition to Spokane Valley’s plans to institute a mining moratorium that could affect that business.
Spokane County Commissioner Al French said he’s aware Bjordahl may come with conflicts of interest. But he said her previous experience as a county planner and knowledge of the county’s comprehensive development plan made her an ideal candidate to stand in for longtime county land-use attorney Dave Huber, who retired last year.
“Land-use law is very specific,” he said. “It’s not as though you could take somebody out of the courtroom that’s on civil matters without a massive learning curve.”
Fellow Commissioner Todd Mielke also said the four cases Bjordahl has been hired to advise the county on involve narrow questions of law.
“The outstanding litigation that we have is very finite in scope, and there’s not a lot of land-use attorneys in this town,” said Mielke, adding that environmental and neighborhood groups typically hire lawyers from Western Washington, and the county wanted to keep its costs down by hiring local.
But Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice, said Huber’s departure was announced long ago and the county has had plenty of time to name a permanent replacement less tied to private developers.
“It seems a little odd that they haven’t hired somebody,” he said.
The Center for Justice is one of the groups challenging the county’s urban-growth plans, along with neighborhood activists and Futurewise.
Tim Trohimivich, director of planning and law for Futurewise, said Bjordahl’s involvement with the county may allow her to negotiate in growth boundary discussions on behalf of private clients who have legally been denied a voice in the talks.
The Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, which is holding hearings to determine if the county complied with state law, ruled that two limited liability corporations that have bought land affected by the boundary revision would not be allowed to participate in negotiations.
But those two corporations have retained Bjordahl as their attorney, and Trohimivich said he worries those companies’ wishes could make their way to the negotiating table, despite the board’s order.
“It’s possible through mediation that we might be able to agree to a settlement that the other party agrees with, but that might not make sense for Bjordahl’s private clients,” Trohimivich said.
Kathy Miotke, president of the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County and a named opponent in one of the cases Bjordahl has been hired to handle, said she understands the county has the ability to hire whatever legal counsel they choose. But she said she was surprised by Bjordahl’s selection.
“My main concern is that Stacy Bjordahl really is a developer’s attorney,” she said. “The county might be hard-pressed to accept any mediation that adversely affects developers’ interests.”
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