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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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While greater Spokane Valley transforms, some hope it will keep its identity

Kids walk through home construction in Liberty Lake near Selkirk Middle School on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Kids walk through home construction in Liberty Lake near Selkirk Middle School on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Few Spokane Valley residents are as familiar with the dividing line between Spokane Valley’s present and its past than Jayne Singleton.

While Singleton has only lived in Spokane Valley since the 1990s, she has spent years documenting historic irrigation lines, railroad beds and old structures for the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum. New urban growth and developments often spring up next to empty fields that still have features from Spokane Valley’s agricultural past.

“You really see when you stand out there. Here is now. There is then, and they’re so close,” she said, “That now is just kind of rolling right over the history that’s still there, the legacy of the land.”

While the greater Spokane Valley has transformed over the past century from a haven for fruit growers to a mix of manufacturing, service and technology industries, one attractive quality still defines it – opportunity created by available land.

In 1921, the earliest population estimate for the unincorporated area in the records of the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum, about 7,000 people lived in the valley and it was still known for its orchards and farms. The most recent estimates from the Washington Office of Financial Management put Spokane Valley’s population at about 96,700 and Liberty Lake’s at about 11,000. The U.S. Census’ American Community Survey put Spokane Valley’s population even higher at 99,703.

Over the past 99 years, the region’s population has ballooned, with several events changing its make up, including World War II and the need for factory workers, the two cities’ incorporation in the early 2000s and recent economic growth across the Inland Northwest.

Spokane Valley’s population is expected to exceed 100,000 in the next few years and according to the city’s comprehensive plan, the city is planning its future on the assumption the population will grow to around 110,000 by 2037. Liberty Lake is anticipated to grow to at least 16,000 in about the same amount of time.

While Spokane Valley’s growth is notable, its population has not climbed as quickly as some Western Washington communities.

When Spokane Valley was incorporated in 2003, it was the ninth-largest city in the state, similar in size to Yakima and Federal Way. Now Spokane Valley, which has gained a few hundred to a thousand people a year for the past decade, is the 10th-largest city. Spokane Valley is still larger than Yakima but has dropped behind Renton in King County, which went from a population of about 56,500 in 2003 to an estimated 104,000 last year.

Over the past few decades, the greater Spokane Valley’s recent growth has been felt in a number of ways, including a tightening real estate market, increased traffic and thousands of new students in the Central Valley School District since 2002.

Jim Frank, the developer behind about 75% of Liberty Lake’s housing, said he wasn’t surprised by the growth in the greater Spokane Valley. His company, Greenstone Homes, has built thousands of residences in what is now Liberty Lake and expects a few thousand more in the next few years.

The valley as a whole offers an easy commute to Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and the airport, and has a growing job sector of its own, with Itron in Liberty Lake, Katerra in Spokane Valley and other industrial companies.

Frank anticipates most of the large tracts of developable land in Liberty Lake will be built out over the next decade but anticipates continued growth all along the Interstate 90 corridor, as well as around the North Spokane Corridor once it is completed.

He contends both cities, especially Liberty Lake, have attracted families and empty nesters to the same types of neighborhoods by allowing construction of multifamily housing, single-family homes and townhouses.

“I think both Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake understand the changes that are taking place in the housing market,” Frank said. “In order to provide houses that are affordable and in order to meet the needs of modern families, we need to see a level of urbanization of suburban areas.”

According to an analysis of Office of Financial Management population data, Liberty Lake is the seventh-fastest-growing city in the state. The city’s planning and engineering director Lisa Key said the rapid increase is because developers were essentially able to start from scratch and didn’t have to plan around existing infrastructure, like those building in the city of Spokane. Both Liberty Lake and Spokane Valley also had a great deal of vacant land when they were incorporated in 2001 and 2003, respectively.

“That is why you do see our two cities growing so quickly,” Key said. “It’s because we do have the available land.”

Pam Frederick, a real estate broker who has been selling in the area for more than two decades, described the greater Spokane Valley market as a “selling frenzy.”

“Spokane markets have varied over the last 24 years greatly,” she said, “but I have never seen the kind of market that we’re experiencing right now.”

The easy commute to jobs, affordability, installation of sewer systems to replace septic tanks, and other important infrastructure have led to an extremely competitive housing market, Frederick said. She said some homeowners who want to move within the greater Spokane Valley, hoping to upgrade to a larger home to accommodate a growing family or downsize to a more affordable home as their children leave, fear they won’t find another house if they list their current one.

Most of the buyers she has sold to are not from the Spokane area. They’re from larger cities with a much higher median home price. Seattle and California are common previous addresses for interested buyers, but she said she has seen an influx of people from Arizona and Colorado as well. Some prospective buyers are able to telecommute for work and can live anywhere, or are employed in the Spokane area’s growing medical communnity.

Frederick said she is concerned that prices will continue to increase as developers run out of buildable land within the growth boundary area. Spokane County agreed to a settlement in 2016 that froze the urban-growth boundary and won’t review it again until 2025. Frederick is one of several in the building, development or real estate industry who is concerned that real estate prices will continue to increase until then, as housing becomes more limited.

The growing communities in Liberty Lake, Spokane Valley and unincorporated Spokane also have put a strain on Central Valley School District, the largest district in the valley. Many of the district’s high school students attend class in portable buildings because Central Valley’s High School is above capacity. During lunch, students eat in hallways and the library, taking turns in the cafeteria because of the lack of space.

The district has grown from more than 11,000 students in the 2002-03 school year to more than 14,000 students this school year. Central Valley Superintendent Ben Small said there was a slight pause during the latest recession, but enrollment has increased steadily for about 20 years.

“Our teachers and our kids just do an amazing job, but when you’re overcrowded by the amount that we’re overcrowded, it takes a toll,” he said.

The district already has built a new middle school, is constructing a new high school and is planning for an additional elementary school.

The district has hired a data analytics company to forecast future enrollment. The firm’s highest potential enrollment forecast for 2028 shows the district growing to almost 17,700 students, the medium forecast is about 16,400 and the low forecast is about 15,000 students.

Small said there are several factors that could influence the future student population, including the strength of the economy and an expansion of the urban-growth boundaries.

“You have to plan today for something that you’re not sure,” he said. “A lot of what happens depends on what happens with the economy. If the economy slows, our enrollment numbers slow like during the recession.”

Urban-growth boundaries are created by cities and counties under state law to limit where urban growth can occur, in an effort to prevent sprawl, preserve open space and resources. Because of a lawsuit, Spokane County will not be able to review its growth boundaries until 2025, which could impact many of the unincorporated areas around Liberty Lake and Spokane Valley.

West Valley School District has not experienced the same bump in enrollment that Central Valley has, hovering around 3,750 students. Deputy Superintendent Doug Matson said the district is mostly boxed in and hadn’t experienced growth for decades, and didn’t anticipate new growth anytime soon.

East Valley has experienced a drop in enrollment, but Superintendent Kelly Shea said that could change in the next few decades if the growth boundaries are expanded and developers move into undeveloped land in the district. Shea said the district is working to address the drop in the number of students currently, but owns land in Otis Orchards that it could use for a new school in the future if it experiences similar growth to Central Valley.

“We’re not growing as a district,” he said. “So we’re trying to navigate our way through that because our neighbors in Central Valley and our neighbors north (Mead) are growing, but we’re not. However, I do believe in the future, we will grow.”

Liberty Lake hopes to continue to be a walkable, “user friendly” city by focusing on a strong master plan and ensuring pedestrian infrastructure keeps up with development, Liberty Lake Mayor Shane Brickner said. He said the city expects to be at full capacity by 2040.

“It’s just a matter of how do we maintain that small-town appeal and level of service that you would hope for in a smaller town?” he said.

Brickner said the city is trying to be methodical going forward and collaborate with its neighbor Spokane Valley when considering new projects, developments and the direction of the region going forward.

Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick said he’s seen excitement from the City Council and community about growth and development, but he also hopes the city won’t lose sight of its roots and will consider diverse types of developments.

“There’s been a lot of growth and a lot of change,” he said, “We just need, in my opinion, to focus on making sure we don’t lose why we’re here through all of that change.”

Wick sees Spokane Valley’s identity as a little bit of everything, with large parcels and horse farms sharing space with big box stores, apartments, industry and single-family homes. He also hopes that Spokane Valley may have a development like Spokane’s Kendall Yards or Liberty Lake’s River District.

He’s hopeful that future development could include a walkable community and a growing business sector, but there will still be pockets that preserve the valley’s older, rural feel.

“We have a strong agricultural heritage, if it’s through the Hearts of Gold cantaloupe or the orchards, or just the animals and having the horses and livestock around,” he said. “It’s trying to figure out how we can support our neighborhoods to have some that can still do that while still allowing different people to do different things.”

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