Nearly 100 homes can be built at the bottom of Spokane’s South Hill bluffs, near the intersection of U.S. Highway 195 and Cheney-Spokane Road, following a decision by the city’s hearing examiner.
The decision, released Wednesday, found the plan to build 96 homes ranging in size from 1,600 to 3,600 square feet on 48 acres of largely vacant land does not violate any land use or shoreline rules.
The isolated property is between Hangman Creek and the steep face of the South Hill and is accessible only from the northbound on-ramp to 195 from Cheney-Spokane Road over a degraded bridge. The site consists of old farmland and has one single-family home and 10 farm buildings, such as barns, sheds and chicken coops.
More than half of the property will be kept as open space, and development can take place on “previously disturbed areas of the site,” according to the decision by Brian McGinn. The subdivision proposal has plans to plant vegetation, remove fencing to help wildlife and erect signs marking off natural areas and teaching people about the area.
“By setting aside the sensitive areas, the project avoids impacts to the banks, water quality, and ecological functions of the shoreline,” McGinn wrote.
John Pilcher, who was once Spokane’s top nonelected official and the city’s first director of economic development, purchased the land in 2004 with plans to eventually develop it. Pilcher did not return requests for comment.
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said he first heard about the development “four to five months ago” and since then has been formulating ways to keep the property undeveloped.
“That’s one of the last ag-zoned lands in the city, but it’s also an entrance to a lot of trails,” Stuckart said. “My personal concern is that (Highway 195) is already not very safe. We need to find some long-term solutions to make it safer, and putting 100 homes by it doesn’t really fit in well with finding those solutions.”
The city has the first right of refusal to purchase the land from Pilcher through the end of 2019. Stuckart said he hoped to follow the same procedure the city did when it acquired the old YMCA building in Riverfront Park in 2010. For that land, the council agreed to pay $4.3 million to acquire the underlying land – debt that was eventually taken on by the county using Conservation Futures program funds, which are generated through property taxes.
In that case, not everyone agreed purchase of the Y property was a wise use of public funds. An unusual coalition of liberal City Council members – Richard Rush and Jon Snyder – and the council’s most conservative member, Nancy McLaughlin, voted against using the Conservation Futures money for the purchase. They opposed the use of such funding because the less-than-1-acre parcel had a structure on it that needed to be demolished, which required money they said should be used for land in pristine condition.
Another reason for their opposition was the large price for the small property. Rush pointed out the program had preserved 223 acres for $2.9 million. Overall, the Conservation Futures program has acquired 8,574 acres through 49 acquisitions since 1994 at a cost of $29.9 million.
Pilcher nominated his property to the list in 2016, and it’s ranked behind a 231-acre parcel on Antoine Peak and 20 acres adjacent to Camp Sekani Park. This week, however, the program closed the deal to acquire the Antoine Peak property, so now Pilcher’s property ranks second, said Paul Knowles, special projects manager with the county.
Knowles said it was unclear what the county program would pay for the property, since first it needs to be reviewed by two separate appraisers. He noted, though, that its value surely went up following McGinn’s decision.
“Typically, appraisers are going to look at the highest and best use of property,” he said. “If it’s a property up on Mica Peak that is being used as forestland and in the foreseeable future probably is going to be used as forestland, it will have a certain value to it. Whereas if you’re looking at a property within city limits that has an approved subdivision, then that’s probably going to be the highest and best use of the property. That is the scenario where you can maximize your economic benefit.”
Farmland not preserved
Whether the property is preserved or developed, McGinn agreed with one criticism of the project that dealt with the property’s designation as “agricultural” in the city’s comprehensive plan, which guides the city’s long-term development.
The comprehensive plan says agricultural lands are of “local importance” because they have “historically been farmed, contain highly productive agricultural soils” and have “large enough parcel sizes for productive farming.”
Single-family homes are allowed on such lands but have to support the agricultural use, according to the comprehensive plan. The residences must “protect and preserve” farmland and be “situated in a manner that preserves as much land as possible for the agricultural operation.” A density of up to 10 homes on an acre is allowed. Pilcher’s plan has 8.8 homes per acre.
McGinn wrote that the proposed subdivision “does not” preserve as much valuable agricultural land as possible.
“On the contrary, the proposal utilizes most of the productive land for housing, setting aside only a small amount of land that may be used for a community garden,” he wrote. “Building craftsman-style houses or adding wagon wheels or other decorations does not change this reality.”
Still, McGinn noted the comprehensive plan is a “general guide for development,” and “cannot be relied upon as a basis to deny the proposed subdivision.”
McGinn also found the development did not run afoul of the state Shoreline Management Act and “is designed to avoid impacts to the sensitive areas of the site.”
In 2008, the city considered increasing shoreline protection buffers from 100 to 200 feet in sensitive areas like Hangman Creek and locations downstream from downtown. The buffers are intended to prevent construction from harming “ecological function” or damaging the physical, chemical or biological processes that help sustain plant or animal habitat.
At the time, Pilcher – who had been recently pushed out of City Hall – said the proposed buffer on his property along Hangman Creek would affect his land’s development potential. The City Council heard his concerns. When members approved enlarging the zone where no construction is allowed, it exempted Pilcher’s 900-foot section from the new rules, allowing construction nearer the creek than allowed anywhere else.
Mayor Mary Verner vetoed the new rules specifically because of Pilcher’s exemption, but the City Council voted to override her veto, and Pilcher’s exemption remained. When new members joined the City Council in 2009, they worked with the state Department of Ecology to get rid of Pilcher’s exemption. Pilcher accused them of “Chicago-style politics.” Then-Council President Joe Shogan suggested that Pilcher may have improperly used his connections in city government to try to win an exception to the shoreline rules.
Pilcher challenged the stricter rules on his land before the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board in 2011, but his arguments were rejected.
Pilcher was hired in 2005 by Mayor Jim West to lead the city’s newly formed division of economic development, which was charged with bringing more business, jobs and tax revenue to the city. In 2006, Mayor Dennis Hession created a team headed by Pilcher to help guide the fledgling Kendall Yards development through City Hall’s permitting process. The following year, Hession fired his deputy mayor and chief operating officer, and promoted Pilcher to the city’s top non-elected position.
Following Verner’s election to the mayor’s office in 2007, Pilcher was replaced at City Hall, and he soon became president and CEO of the Spokane Club.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on May 30, 2019 to remove incorrect information about Pilcher’s employment. He is no longer employed at the Spokane Club. It was changed on June 7, 2019 to correct what happened to Pilcher’s employment at city hall following Verner’s election.
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