Spokane residents feel so strongly about their parks that they won the right to stop officials from selling off park land.
That unusual demand - written into the City Charter - gives voters the final say on the decision to sell park land.
Now the Spokane Park Board is considering a new rule that would modify that 1987 voter-approved requirement to seek voter approval before selling lands owned by the Spokane Parks Department.
Parks officials say the requirement has forced it to hold onto parcels useless to the department and the public because holding votes on would be too costly.
But some question why park leaders are so averse from simply asking voters. And that pushback, led by conservation groups, prompted the park board to defer its decision.
Park Board President Nick Sumner said the proposal would allow the department to sell property it has no use for, such as small parcels and lots scattered throughout residential areas.
“It doesn’t make sense to hold onto a piece of property just because we own it,” he said.
Park land that is not being used as a park, officials argue, could be sold without an election.
Garret Jones, acting parks director, said the policy change would not open up other city properties to potential sale.
“We’re talking about 1 percent or less, there is not a lot of these out there,” he said. “We really want to take a hard look at some of these surplus lands and look at how we can take those proceeds and reinvest those back into the park system.”
Some unused parks properties have been used as campsites, are difficult to maintain or costly for the city Jones said. He said selling some unused properties the parks department owns, such as small lots between homes in Peaceful Valley, could save money.
The process would set up a public hearing to determine if the parcels are appropriate to sell. Jones said the proceeds would support programming and capital costs in neighborhood parks, not subsidize operations or projects in Riverfront Park.
“Our focus has always been around neighborhood parks,” Jones said. “In no way, would this ever be connected with Riverfront Park whatsoever.”
The park department did not sell unused parcels in the past because of the city charter does not include a definition of an existing park, said Greta Gilman, park board member. She said the new policy would define what a park is and give staff guidance when people ask if they can purchase park land, or if a parcel becomes an issue.
She said the park board would only consider selling property if it is not a park and does not have the potential to become a park.
“We don’t want to be in the real estate business,” she said. “We want to be very, very selective and particular about disposing of any piece of parks property.”
The Park Board was scheduled to approve the policy change last week, but after public testimony from two local conservation groups and several written concerns, it sent the proposal back to committee.
Anna Walls, a law student representing the Gonzaga Law School Environmental Law and Land Use Clinic, said the policy needed to account for undeveloped park land that the community informally uses as parks.
She said much of the park department’s land scattered throughout the city provides open space and recreation for neighborhoods, and any policy that would allow the park board to sell that land without a vote needs to include as much public comment as possible. She said she wasn’t necessarily opposed to the parks department selling off some of its lands, but it needs a policy that recognizes how people may use park-owned land that is not an official park.
Pat Keegan, board president of the Friends of the Bluff, an organization that maintains a parks-owned wooded area near High Drive, said many community groups with vested interests weren’t aware of the park board’s proposal to sell unused properties.
He suggested the park board notify neighborhood councils, local organizations and nearby property owners earlier in the process.
“They need to be notified that this whole thing is underway and not find out about it after decisions have already been made,” he said.
Former Spokane Mayor Sheri Barnard, who supported the 1987 city charter amendment when it was on the ballot, said the parks department should ask the public before selling land or updating their policies.
“If they want to change, it should be brought to the people to vote,” she said. “Citizens should have a say.”
Barnard said voters restricted the parks department from selling land because in the 1980s, it tried to sell Thornton Murphy Park. She said some of the biggest opponents of the sale pushed for a charter amendment after the parks department backed out of the sale, because they were concerned the public’s land could still be sold.
Gilman said she wasn’t necessarily opposed to going to voters to ask to sell surplus land, but hold an election could be expensive and time consuming for the parks department. Sumner said he hopes the finalized policy will follow what voters intended when they approved the 1987 initiative, but also create an efficient way for parks staff to deal with unused properties.
“You always want to follow what has been set down before, but also, there’s a cost to going to vote for things,” he said.
Steve Eugster, a former city councilman who has taken legal action against both county and city governments over parkland, said the parks department could not sell any of its land without a vote even if the land is not officials labeled a park.
“The charter is quite clear, you can’t sell park property unless the voters agree,” he said.
He said if the parks department tried to surplus land and sell it, he would likely take legal action over it.
Dennis Hession, former Spokane mayor as well as a former Spokane Park Board president, said the city has long been grappling with what to do with its surplus property, including during his tenure in office in the late 2000s. He said fears that park officials would sell parks were far-fetched.
Creating a process to allow the city to explore and also educate the public on its plans for surplus park land would put park officials on an “even playing field” with potentially concerned residents, he said. City officials couldn’t spend money to launch a campaign for a particular ballot initiative if a public vote is required to sell the land, hamstringing park officials from making their case.
“There’s no way to do that unless you have a private group use its personal resources,” Hession said.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said his concern with the policy was how it handled neighborhood involvement.
“You need to notify neighborhoods,” Stuckart said. “I always side on letting people know.”
Gilman said she agreed with the public comments and hopes to include a new section of the policy that would inform the entire community that a parcel of land may be considered surplus and sold.
After hearing several comments from the public, Sumner said the policy would likely undergo several revisions in committee before coming before the board again.
“There’s no rush to do it right this second by any means,” he said. “If we’re going to do it, we’ll do it right.”