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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane initiative to prevent ban on natural gas removed from November ballot by judge

The Spokane County Courthouse is pictured.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A Spokane County Superior Court judge has rejected a citizen initiative attempting to ensure protections for natural gas hookups within the city of Spokane.

After lengthy arguments from attorneys representing both proponents and challengers to the Spokane Cleaner Energy Protection Act, or Proposition One, Judge Charnelle Bjelkengren ruled Wednesday the ballot initiative overstepped by effectively changing municipal code if it were to pass.

The proposition would have preemptively prohibited the Spokane City Council from enacting a ban on natural gas services or hydro electric power for homes and businesses in Spokane. The lawsuit, filed earlier this month by a Seattle-based firm, listed as plaintiffs Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke and Protect Spokane Action, a nonprofit formed the same week.

While no sitting elected leader in Spokane has recommended a ban on either energy source, the proposition would have invalidated a portion of city building code.

“No unvented or open flame gas heater is permitted as the primary source of heating,” the code reads. The language of the proposition is so broad it would have invalidated this portion of building code which the Spokane City Council exclusively has the administrative right to make, Bjelkengren ruled.

Initiatives are limited to legislating and cannot dictate administrative processes, Bjelkengren noted, ruling that the initiative would have interfered with an already adopted administrative process to enact statewide climate change goals.

In June a new portion of municipal code went into affect outlining how the city plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of the city’s larger environmental stewardship plan. Bjelkengren ruled the initiative would have interfered with the newly creative administrative process.

The judge also evaluated whether the initiative violated existing state or federal law and found that it did not.

Jennifer Thomas, director of membership services for the Spokane Home Builders Association, who helped spearhead the initiative, said she was “saddened” that voters would not have the choice on this issue. Her attorney, George Ahrend, said initiative supporters had yet to decide whether to file an appeal on the issue.

The city’s sustainable action subcommittee, a volunteer group formed by City Council, had placed a proposal to ban natural gas hookups for new construction by 2028 in a draft plan released this year. The association pointed to that proposal as the reason for the initiative to prevent the City Council from acting on the concept.