Spokane County commissioners lost another round in the ongoing dispute over how and where the county’s population will grow.
Three appellate judges ruled last week commissioners didn’t provide enough public notice before revising urban growth boundaries in July 2013. The decision leaves in place a mediation process between Spokane County officials and members of neighborhood groups around the county, as well as the Washington departments of Commerce and Transportation, over where denser, urban development will be allowed.
That process began over a decade ago, when the state passed its Growth Management Act in an attempt to limit urban sprawl. Neighborhood groups have accused the county many times since then of fudging numbers to the benefit of developers, allowing services like sewers and roads to be extended into areas beneficial for their projects without adequate public involvement. The county argues it has complied with a complicated state land-use law and all of the revisions were backed by public testimony and input from cities.
In a unanimous decision, Judge Robert Lawrence-Berrey wrote for a three-member panel that the county did not comply with the state law’s public participation provisions when expanding its population projections and the area available for development in 2013.
“The County’s unilateral increase of the population projection appears to have been a retrofit driven by a desire to increase” the urban growth boundary, Lawrence-Berrey wrote. In other words, the county changed population numbers to fit the urban growth area it wanted, rather than the other way around, he wrote.
Neighborhood groups including Futurewise, the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County and the Five Mile Prairie Neighborhood Association challenged the county’s population projections before the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. The hearings board agreed, invalidating the resolution and nixing future development in the areas targeted by commissioners until a legal agreement is reached.
State law allows developers to file plans with the county based on current zoning regulations, however. That allows builders to file plans with the county before legal challenges can arise from concerned neighbors in a process known as “vesting.”
Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said the legal proceedings have cost taxpayers money on both sides of the issue, because the two state departments joined the lawsuit. He said the population discrepancies are minor based on the total number of people living in Spokane County.
“We should have met much earlier,” Mielke said of the two sides, who are meeting under order of the growth management hearings board to reach a settlement on the population issue as well as a handful of other legal battles. Mielke said he was optimistic the sides would be able to reach an agreement before the end of the year.
Rick Eichstaedt, attorney for several of the neighborhood groups, also said there was reason to be optimistic.
“We’ve met and we’re still talking,” Eichstaedt said. “There are positive discussions moving forward.”
Both men declined to address specifics since the case is ongoing.
Lawrence-Berrey’s decision marks the second time this year the appellate court has backed the growth management hearings board in a case against Spokane County’s development decisions. In April, judges sided with the board and threw out county commissioners’ approval of an apartment complex near Whitworth University, citing inadequate road access to the property.
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