A debate about mobile homes spurred Spokane Mayor David Condon this week to issue only his second veto since he took office.
But it was subsequently overridden by the City Council – in about an hour.
The override was a hurried affair, as council members took three quick votes to suspend the council’s rules, add the override to the agenda and then vote on the override. Councilman Mike Fagan was the sole member to oppose all three votes. Councilman Mike Allen, who likely would have joined Fagan, was absent.
Condon’s veto focused on a change to the city’s comprehensive plan, which guides the city’s growth and development. The proposal added a definition for manufactured home parks to the comp plan and was passed by the council two weeks ago on a 5-2 vote after an hour of contentious public testimony. Fagan and Allen voted against it.
Councilman Jon Snyder, who helped shepherd the change through City Hall, said defining manufactured home parks would give greater protections to low-income people, while adding clarity to the law for such parks. The parks could later be defined case-by-case as low-income, allowing them to be eligible for special programs or subsidies.
Detractors say the council not only ignored the advice of the city’s Plan Commission to delay any action until an affordable housing study was done, but the vote also threatens property rights.
On Tuesday, Condon said the council’s “quick action” on the veto override impeded public involvement.
“Affordable housing is an important and complex concern in Spokane and deserves a comprehensive solution,” Condon said in a statement. “With this veto, I was asking the City Council to give the Plan Commission the time it requested to do a thorough review of affordable housing options for public review and engagement. We have recent successful examples to point to of public processes that produced the best results because of the engagement that was done. Unfortunately, last night’s quick action resulted in another missed opportunity for public engagement.”
Stuckart rejected Condon’s argument, saying the council had been working on the text change for two years and a “comp plan amendment has more public process than any other change we have in city government.”
Stuckart said the veto override was done with haste because members had no qualms with the original 5-2 vote, and they felt comfortable reiterating their stances for the change to the comp plan.
At the Nov. 2 meeting, Snyder argued forcefully for the need for such a change.
“We are in an affordable housing crisis in Spokane, particularly for folks that can’t afford standard housing. And it’s not getting any easier,” he said. “I don’t want to spend another year studying that and using that as a reason to not take action on getting us more affordable housing.”
Snyder and his allies on the council said the comp plan amendment made no immediate changes to development rules and would have no effect on existing parks.
Stuckart reiterated numerous times at the meeting that manufactured home parks will not be defined as “low income” unless the owners want it to be.
“So this doesn’t affect anybody’s land in the city,” Stuckart said. “I want to be really clear. Whatever happens tonight, nobody’s land use in the city of Spokane is going to change because of this.”
Allen, who said he struggled with the issue for three years, said the text change would ultimately lead to an erosion of personal property rights.
“There’s a personal property right that’s going to be an underlying issue when it gets down to the brass tacks,” Allen said. “How am I as a property owner able to utilize my land and the investment that I’ve made?”
Public testimony that night came from all quarters: people representing manufactured home associations, landowners, poverty advocates and attorneys. There are 19 mobile or manufactured home parks in the city.
Jay Smith, who was the potentate of the El Katif Shriners in 2011, said the text change threatened his group’s San Souci West manufactured home park as well as its Shriners Hospital for Children.
“The value of that property today is much greater than it would be tomorrow if you pass this tonight,” Smith said. “You would, anyway you look at it, be stealing our property value by rezoning it for low-income housing.”
Glen Duncan, who lives in the Sunny Creek Residential Community, suggested some people have simple views of mobile homes that don’t align with reality.
“A gentleman stood up and said, ‘Oh you know, you can just back a truck up, put the hitch on the front of that trailer and you can pull it out and you can put it somewhere else,’” Duncan said. “My modular home, or whatever you want to call it, is 1,638 square feet. It’s a triple-wide. And I beg to differ I could back a truck up and pull it out.”
Counting Monday’s veto, Spokane mayors have vetoed nine ordinances since 2001, when the city switched to a strong-mayor form of government. Four of the vetoes were overridden by council votes.
In his letter to the council explaining the veto, which was emailed to council members two minutes after their Monday evening council meeting began, Condon said “more information and greater time is needed to make a decision that amends” the comp plan. Condon pointed to the recent recommendation from the city’s Plan Commission to deny the text change, as well as his support of the commission’s recommendation to perform a low-income housing study over the coming year.
“The Plan Commission’s recommendation was based on their conclusion that there is not enough information available to make a decision on the merits of the proposal, or to determine whether the proposal furthers the City’s affordable housing goals,” Condon wrote.
Condon’s letter also suggested that the City Council was ignoring the role the Plan Commission is supposed to play in city government.
“This veto seeks to give the Plan Commission the time to explore the issues surrounding housing and to formulate options for public review to address these needs,” he said.
An hour and 15 minutes after officially receiving the veto, Stuckart initiated the parliamentary rules to override Condon’s veto, which requires five votes but no public notice.
Fagan said he had lived in mobile home parks during his life, so he had “empathy” for those who have little choice but to live there. Still, he said, the text change “opens the door” to eroding personal property rights.
“That empathy is not going to trump property owners or property rights,” he said.
On Tuesday, Stuckart criticized Condon for not “picking up the phone or walking across the hall” to voice concerns with the amendment. Stuckart also said calls for a low-income housing study were “ disingenuous.”
“People say they want to study things when they don’t want to do something,” Stuckart said.
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