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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Plan to add 415 homes in southwest Spokane raises capacity concerns

A proposal to build 415 homes on undeveloped, forested land in southwest Spokane is making its way through City Hall, as the developer seeks permission to divide 83 acres of land into a suburban neighborhood.

The so-called Marshall Creek Estates proposal by Whipple Consulting Engineers replaces a similar plan from 2018, which sought to build 240 homes on the same elbow of land between Cheney-Spokane Road and Cedar Road about a mile south of U.S. Highway 195. Both proposals wrapped the subdivision around Spokane Memorial Gardens, a 1950s-era cemetery on Cheney-Spokane Road owned by Fairmont Memorial Park.

The earlier proposal, from Eagle Ridge by Newland Communities, was dropped after neighbors raised concerns of unmanageable traffic in the quickly growing corner of town. With the marked increase in the number of homes in the new proposal, however, those concerns surely won’t relent. Yet the development is within city limits, and city leaders have called for more housing and “infill” to combat rising housing costs and sprawl beyond Spokane’s borders.

The Whipple proposal joins two other proposed developments in the Latah-Hangman Neighborhood. John Pilcher, who was once Spokane’s top nonelected official and the city’s first director of economic development, recently won approval to build nearly 100 homes at the base of the South Hill near the Cheney-Spokane Road overpass on U.S. Highway 195. And another proposal from Whipple seeks to build more than 100 homes just south of the proposed location of Marshall Creek Estates.

Kai Huschke, chair of the Latah-Hangman Neighborhood Council and a resident of the long-established Vinegar Flats section of the neighborhood, said he expected organized resistance from residents.

“The mobilization last time was pretty swift and clear from neighbors. I can’t imagine that’s changed any,” he said, noting that resident concerns ranged from quality of life issues to preserving wildlife, but most were focused on traffic.

“It’s not if, it’s when. There’s going to be more fatalities,” he said.

In 2014, the state built a $9.4 million overpass and interchange where Cheney-Spokane Road meets Highway 195, following a collision that killed 16-year-old Cheney High School student Lorissa Green in 2009. And in 2015, a PT Cruiser, heading east on Thorpe and making a left turn onto the highway, was struck by a motorist driving a Dodge pickup northon 195. Three women sitting in the PT Cruiser’s back seat were killed. Washington State Patrol determined that the crash was caused by the driver of the PT Cruiser, who failed to yield to the pickup.

In the past six months, the Washington State Department of Transportation has patched together solutions to improve connections to the increasingly problematic Highway 195, which has carried more traffic from the booming residential development. In April, WSDOT installed a ramp meter at the highway’s interchange with Interstate 90, and the agency is in the midst of building J-turns at Thorpe Road.

Mike Gribner, administrator of WSDOT’s eastern region, insisted the highway has “ample capacity,” but said its connections to I-90 and the many intersections between Hatch Road and the interstate remain a concern. Fixing the road isn’t impossible – just prohibitively costly, as the new $9.4 million overpass illustrates. Building a separate lane on I-90 for merging traffic from Highway 195 would be far more expensive, as it entails widening the 56-year-old bridge hundreds of feet above Hangman Valley.

“It absolutely is impacting the facility,” Gribner said of development.

Still, WSDOT has little leverage, Gribner said. “We can’t say no. We can try to say no in different ways.”

Gribner said he preferred working with the city to make sure land use decisions are made with an understanding of what the transportation system can handle, and stopped short of calling for a moratorium on development, noting that WSDOT is “not anti-development. We’re pro-economic development.”

“Our preference is to work together with the city,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen and development continues to develop in a way that’s harmful to the facility, I think the proper thing is to stop it until you have a proper outcome.”

Huschke, the neighborhood chair, said all development in his neighborhood needs to stop until the increasingly dangerous traffic situation is controlled.

“There needs to be a moratorium on development. The neighborhood can’t handle it. It can’t handle it from the traffic perspective,” he said. “You’re legalizing chaos in a way that’s going to be tragic.”

Calls to Whipple Consulting Engineers seeking comment were not returned.

Suburbs in southwest Spokane

If built, Marshall Creek Estates would join a number of proposed and already constructed subdivisions in this formerly rural part of Spokane.

The Whipple proposal follows the recently granted approval for another developer to build nearly 100 homes at the bottom of Spokane’s South Hill bluffs, just east of the intersection of Highway 195 and Cheney-Spokane Road. A decision in May by the city’s hearing examiner cleared the way for the development of the Pilcher site, which consists of old farmland, a single-family home and 10 farm buildings, such as barns, sheds and chicken coops.

It also joins another proposal by Whipple, which has been put on hold as the developer seeks a land use change. The Summit development would be south of the 415-home Marshall Creek Estates and consists of more than 100 homes on 21 acres.

Over the last 20 years, numerous subdivisions have sprung up in southwest Spokane: Eagle Ridge, Qualchan Hills, Persimmon Woods and Canyon Bluffs.

Eagle Ridge, the largest of them, was first developed in 1996 with plans to build up to 2,300 homes on “527 choice acres alongside Highway 195,” as The Spokesman-Review described it at the time. No traffic concerns were reported then.

Though the Eagle Ridge development changed hands and the number of home sites was cut to about 1,100, the boom in population in what was a sparsely populated rural area led to a number of headaches for regional transportation planners, who continue to struggle with how to better connect the growing part of town to highways and the city core.

In 1990, both directions of Highway 195 north of its intersection with Cheney-Spokane Road carried 8,700 vehicles a day on average, according to data supplied by WSDOT. Seven years later, the number had leaped to 14,000. In 2018, it reached 21,000.

In 2001, the S-R reported that WSDOT was dropping plans to construct an access street connecting Qualchan Drive to Meadowlane Road along the west side of Highway 195, which would have required building into steep hillsides with unstable soils. A state highway engineer called the plans “too risky of a design.”

Even then, at the turn of the 21st century, the paper reported that housing growth is “expected to eventually lead to hazardous conditions at intersections along the highway. Highway officials want to build new access roads and interchanges to separate local traffic from through traffic and to prevent an increase in accidents.”

The abandoned proposal, which was replaced by Marshall Creek Estates, was by the same company that has developed the more established Eagle Ridge neighborhood to its east.

During the previous proposal’s planning, city staff suggested in pre-development conference notes that the proposed development would worsen traffic problems and pointed to three problem intersections.

The intersection of Cedar and Cheney-Spokane is a Y-shaped, three-way junction with two stop signs, allowing only the southbound traffic to flow freely. Currently, the roads near this intersection carry between 3,100 and 3,700 cars a day, an increase from 2015, when the roads counted between 2,600 and 3,200 vehicles a day. The city has no plans to improve this intersection.

An “informal” community meeting about the latest proposal, scheduled for Aug. 1, will “discuss existing or potential traffic issues that currently exist or that may exist as a result of this project,” according to a notice Whipple sent to surrounding residents.

Following the meeting, the developer, the city of Spokane, Spokane County and WSDOT will finalize the scope of a traffic study, which will need to be completed before the proposal is approved.

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