Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Vote next week could bring hundreds of new apartments to Spokane’s Five Mile Prairie neighborhood

Spokane County commissioners will vote next week on a controversial zoning change north of Five Mile Prairie that has residents concerned it could bring hundreds of apartments to their neighborhood.

Developer Harley Douglass is proposing a zoning change from low to medium density residential for more than 22 acres of vacant land northwest of Five Mile and Waikiki roads with subsequent plans to build more than 300 apartments.

Residents raised concerns with the county’s planning commission last year, citing increased traffic, Mead School District capacity issues, lack of proper notice for the zoning change, disruption to wildlife and environmental impacts because the land is in what’s called a “Critical Aquifer Recharge Area.”

Medium density residential zoning in the county allows for compact, urban-style development, which includes multifamily homes. The neighborhood, bounded by the vacant parcel of land to the west and Whitworth University to the east, consists primarily of single-family homes.

Robby Grether, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than a decade, is concerned hundreds of new apartments along the stretch of road between North Five Mile Road and Mill Road will create a traffic nightmare.

Grether said Waikiki Road was recently converted from four to two lanes with a roundabout at Mill Road. Traffic has run fairly smoothly, she said, but increased development could change that.

“The people I’ve talked to about (the zoning change) are just appalled,” she said. “The neighborhood had a lot of input on narrowing Waikiki Road and it has worked well, but to add that much more traffic – it’s hard to even anticipate how awful it’s going to be.”

Mead School District wrote a letter to county commissioners in June of last year stating it’s in a “very precarious position” regarding population growth in north Spokane County and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to provide space for students.

“We respectfully request Spokane County more significantly consider the impact to the Mead School District in the future when making decisions regarding multifamily developments and ‘spot’ zoning changes that allow for high density developments,” the school district wrote.

A group of residents appealed an environmental review for the zoning change, in which the county hearing examiner ruled that a traffic study submitted by Douglass didn’t meet proper requirements set forth by the county’s engineer. The hearing examiner also ruled any future development would require primary access to Waikiki Road and limit Five Mile Road to emergency access.

The attorney for Douglass filed a motion to reconsider the decision, prompting the hearing examiner to reverse findings. As a result, the zone change was sent back to the county’s planning commission, which voted 6 to 1 in favor with a condition that future development would be restricted to 100 apartments until a second access road is constructed.

Debbie Rauen, who was among the group of residents involved in the appeal, said battling the zoning change has been a contentious process with lack of communication between the county and residents about the project status.

“This whole process has been very discouraging to me, because I feel the county planning department is in lockstep with the developer and they have demonstrated over and over again it’s a process where the odds are stacked against us,” she said.

This isn’t the first time Douglass has submitted a zoning change for the 22-acre site, which was initially approved by the county in 2007 for 50 residential units.

Douglass submitted a request in 2011 to change zoning to medium density residential with plans for apartments, but indicated Five Mile Road as an access point instead of Waikiki Road.

He stated in an application that “economic conditions have changed the single family housing market due to a surplus of lots, rising construction costs and current lending practices that warrant modifications to the zoning code.”

County commissioners at that time approved the zone change, claiming that rezoning to medium density would provide a mix of residential uses allowed in the Growth Management Act.

But neighborhood groups such as the Five Mile Prairie Neighborhood Association and Futurewise appealed the decision, and in 2012, the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearing Board found the zoning change wasn’t consistent with the county’s comprehensive plan.

The county appealed the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearing Board’s decision, but state appellate judges ruled in favor of the board and directed the county to be in compliance with the Growth Management Act.

Rauen said if the current zoning change is approved by commissioners, she hopes the development is built in a way that fits the character of the neighborhood and Douglass demonstrates safe road access in his plans.

“You want development that makes sense and you want developers to be able to have their business, but you also want people that are taxpayers to have their concerns legitimately weighed and incorporated in the plans,” she said.

County commissioners will vote on the comprehensive plan amendment at a Tuesday afternoon meeting.