A group of residents led by Millwood City Council candidate Jay Molitor has sued the small city to stop plans for a park that would provide access to the Spokane River.
Even though Millwood city officials have repeatedly said that no project is currently planned for lots purchased in 2016 along South Riverway, residents have pointed to a series of emails sent by then-city clerk Tom Richardson to the Spokane Conservation District. Richardson wrote that the city wanted to use a pair of adjoining lots for a park and included a two-page proposal for a South Riverway Park. The proposal called for a parking lot, a picnic area, and a canoe and kayak launching system in what is now an area zoned residential.
Each lot is about 60 feet wide and includes a steep bank going down to the Spokane River, where there is no beach.
The lawsuit alleges that the decision the city made is in violation of the State Environmental Policy Act and the state’s Growth Management Act.
The City Council recently approved a Comprehensive Plan designation change for the lots from residential to public reserve. During the process, the city received a large number of comments from residents, most of them opposed to a park in the quiet, residential neighborhood with narrow streets and large homes along the river.
The city has claimed it has a shortage of park land, and its comprehensive plan calls for the addition of new miniparks.
Molitor formed the group behind the lawsuit, called Millwood Citizens Preserving Neighborhood Integrity, in April. The group and its lawyer, Milton Rowland, have submitted public comments voicing concerns about the decision throughout the months long process.
The lawsuit raises many of the issues brought up in public comments opposing the change. One of the allegations is that the city did not prepare a “meaningful” environmental impact statement, writing repeatedly that the proposal was a “non-project action.”
“(City) Staff took the position that SEPA review will take place when the rezone takes place, but this is also demonstrably untrue,” the lawsuit reads. “Park uses will hereafter be permitted under the Plan amendment of 2019 and the only review provided is for code compliance.”
Molitor did not respond to calls seeking comment, but in a previous interview about his campaign for City Council he said his opposition to the park prompted him to run unsuccessfully for mayor two years ago and now the council seat held by Andy Van Hees.
“I just thought at the time that it wasn’t in the best interest of all of Millwood,” he said.
The council approved the comprehensive plan change at its monthly meeting in August and was scheduled to vote on an ordinance adopting the change during the September meeting, but that vote was postponed. Mayor Kevin Freeman said he postponed the vote so the council could be briefed on the lawsuit first.
“We wanted to give the council an opportunity to hear about the lawsuit in executive session and answer any questions they had,” he said.
Freeman said he expects the ordinance that formally adopts the comprehensive plan change on the parcels will be voted on at the council’s October meeting. He said the decision to make the change wasn’t made lightly. “A great deal of due diligence has been made by the council and the planning commission,” he said.
Rowland said he filed the lawsuit before the scheduled vote because by law it had to be done within 21 days of the city’s final action, and he’s not sure if the court would consider the initial voice vote in August the final action or not. “We filed it when we did out of an abundance of caution,” he said.
Rowland said a park will affect the neighborhood but that those changes haven’t been addressed.
“What’s going to happen to the neighborhood?” he asked. “It’s going to make a tremendous change. There’s been no evaluation of what the traffic impact will be like, what the noise impact will be like. There’s been no look at the consequences.”
Rowland said he’s been an attorney for many years and he’s never seen a city make such a targeted change to a comprehensive plan. “That’s an awfully, awfully small and focused Comprehensive Plan change,” he said.
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