Where once a bulldozed road cut through popular parkland overseeing Latah Creek, Pat Keegan sees progress.
“The outpouring of anger and people who loved the bluff, that never would have happened. We never would have seen all that – if the bulldozer hadn’t been there,” Keegan said Friday, trudging through a few inches of crunchy snow covering the hillside that was a flashpoint of controversy less than a year ago.
Keegan heads the group Friends of the Bluff, one of several organizations blindsided by the construction of what the city called an illegal road on the hills along High Drive last spring. The organization now will be pushing the autonomous Spokane Park Board to agree to buy roughly 50 acres of private property intended to prevent such disturbances in the future, a vote that is expected as soon as the panel’s next meeting on March 8.
The purchase price of $270,000 was negotiated with the family of Randall Bracher, which owns the only private piece of land where a contractor carved a road intended to provide utility access for the construction of a now-abandoned par 3 golf course nearby. Leroy Eadie, Spokane parks director, told an assembled group of Comstock neighborhood residents this week he believes the price is fair.
“During the process, the Brachers did an appraisal which came in just under $500,000,” Eadie said. “So we feel really good about the price. We think we got a great opportunity.”
If approved, the purchase would be the first time the department, under his guidance, has bought land without tapping into a county-level program that designates some property tax receipts for conservation purposes, Eadie said.
“We’re not always able to buy property,” he said. “We typically don’t have a lot of money in our funds available.”
The Brachers also received a $180,000 settlement to close out all their legal claims against First Tee, the nonprofit organization behind the plans for the golf course; Swedberg Contracting Corp., the builders of the road; and Avista Corp., which planned to use the access road to perform work on power lines in the area. First Tee agreed to pay $85,000 of the settlement, Swedberg will pay $75,000 and Avista $20,000.
Avista, working with the city, led restoration efforts that commenced quickly after the road was bulldozed. Hundreds of saplings were planted, and the soil was restored to carved hillsides.
Ryan Yahne, an attorney for the Brachers, said the family hopes the Park Board will sign off on the sale. The panel already has agreed to a purchase option, with a down payment of $5,000, that is good until the end of the year.
Keegan has the same hope. After a fire threatened homes on the South Hill bluff in July 2014, the owners considered fencing off the property, Keegan and Eadie said. The blaze was believed to have been set by those living in temporary encampments.
That would have required trail users to drop some 100 feet down to the banks of Latah Creek below, then climb back up along a sand wall formed during the Missoula floods, a centurieslong melting of glaciers that reshaped much of the Pacific Northwest.
“If it was ever developed, you wouldn’t be able to get from the south end of the bluff to the north end of the bluff,” Keegan said. “You can’t really get around it.”
The area is already treacherous. Twice in the past two years the Friends of the Bluff group has had to reroute trails that overlook a bend in the creek because of soil erosion, Keegan said.
Eadie said this week the Parks Department will use internal funds to finance the sale, including a $126,000 gift made some years ago by a woman to the department that is intended to be used only for conservation purposes. The Parks Department declined to provide the name of the benefactor this week, saying they needed to check their contracts to ensure public identification of the donor was authorized.
The additional $144,000 required for the sale will come out of the Parks Department’s cumulative reserve fund, said Eadie, an account designated to handle replacement of technical equipment and vehicles as well as repairs. There’s enough in the account to cover the sale, he said.
The Bracher property, which bisects the extensive 27-mile trail system that is maintained by the Friends of the Bluff, has long been sought by the city. Eadie said the department has been pursuing a purchase for at least 15 years.
Preserving the bluff has been in the city plans for long before that. The Olmsted Brothers, the landscape architecture firm behind the designs for New York City’s Central Park and the U.S. Capitol Grounds, included in their 1913 report on Spokane’s park system the preservation of what they called “Latah park.”
“The wooded ravines will give opportunities for delightful secluded walks and resting places,” the firm wrote in its report. “In the larger ravine a drive would descend to the valley of the Latah Creek.”
Eadie said he’d urged the Brachers to consider nominating their property for acquisition through a program called Conservation Futures, which pays for land sales through a portion of the property taxes levied countywide. But the Brachers weren’t interested in designating their property in the latest round of nominations, Eadie said. There are currently 38 properties for acquisition through the program.
Among those properties are two of the last remaining pieces of privately owned property on the bluff, including the long sought-after Tuscan Ridge parcel, a steep, 22-acre plot at 57th Avenue that has received preliminary approval for construction of up to 100 condominium units.
Greg Durheim, the commercial real estate broker with Windermere overseeing the property for owner Yong Lewis, said Friday they’re in final negotiations for a sale of the property, which has received a commerical appraisal of more than $5 million.
“We’re real close to fencing it off,” he said. Durheim said he’s been working toward developing the property for 12 years.
The other piece of property is a roughly 50-acre plot that stretches to U.S. Highway 195 and could provide lower access to the trail system by a currently private bridge used by Avista to access a nearby substation.
Eadie said there had been no appraisal of that site to determine what the land might cost.
Keegan, who grew up in Spokane and moved back to the South Hill six years ago and instantly fell in love with the bluffs, said he hoped the activism prompted by the bulldozing blow-up would persist to protect a greater portion of the picturesque bluff.
“We own the parks,” he said. “We’ve got to stand up and support them, or they’re not going to be there.”
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