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‘There’s so much at stake’: Clock running out on effort to conserve 48-acre Latah Valley farmland from development, owner says

UPDATED: Tue., March 30, 2021

Looking north along U.S. 195, at left, and Latah Creek, the Pilcher property is shown at right. Several old homestead buildings have remained there. Plans are on the table to put homes at the site, but a citizen’s group has pushed the city to buy the property and make it parkland, contiguous to the South Hill bluff, which is a popular hiking and biking area.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Looking north along U.S. 195, at left, and Latah Creek, the Pilcher property is shown at right. Several old homestead buildings have remained there. Plans are on the table to put homes at the site, but a citizen’s group has pushed the city to buy the property and make it parkland, contiguous to the South Hill bluff, which is a popular hiking and biking area. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Efforts have been underway for years to stop the development of a prime 48-acre parcel of agricultural land in the Latah Valley, located between Latah Creek and the bottom of High Drive Bluff Park, but a lawyer representing the landowner suggested on Friday that the clock is running out on the possibility of conservation.

“We really appreciate all the good collaboration of the past few years but we’re near the end of the time that we can hold the property off the market,” wrote Taudd Hume, an attorney representing John Pilcher, in an email response to questions about the property.

If Pilcher does move forward with development rather than conservation, he has a head start on getting it done.

Pilcher, who was once Spokane’s top nonelected official, and Hume first filed an application for a housing development on the property in December 2016. The same year, Pilcher agreed to a city request to nominate the property for a Spokane County Conservation Futures grant.

But those two processes have moved forward at different paces on their parallel tracks.

The development proposal reached a finish line in 2019, when Pilcher received a preliminary plat approval for 94 residential lots. And because the plat was secured before the Washington State Department of Transportation issued to the city of Spokane what amounted to a development moratorium until area traffic issues have been resolved, Hume said plans for Pilcher’s property will not be “held up by the current Hwy 195 traffic issues” that have stalled a long list of other projects proposed for the corridor.

The conservation effort, on the other hand, remains unresolved.

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

Paul Knowles, special projects manager for the county parks department, said the property originally ranked No. 5 on a prioritized list of land to acquire as part of the Conservation Futures program in 2016.

And while the county ultimately acquired the top four projects, it hasn’t been able to find the money to buy Pilcher’s land.

Last year, the county wrapped up the previous round of Conservation Futures grants and plans to open a new round from May 1 through July 31, pending approval from the Spokane County Board of Commissioners.

Knowles said he has “welcomed and invited” Hume to reapply for the program.

Meanwhile, the city has also made explicit overtures to Pilcher about a path toward acquiring the land for public use.

Hume said the city has twice “purchased a right of first refusal to match any offer we receive to sell the property,” but that the “last of those rights expired in December 2019.”

The city renewed its effort to acquire the land late last year when City Council made it a Tier 1 priority on its legislative agenda, meaning “it’s the goal of the city to achieve something and we’re taking the lead on it,” said Council President Breean Beggs.

In a February letter to Pilcher, Spokane Parks and Recreation Director Garrett Jones suggested the outline of a potential plan by which the city might acquire the land ahead of its 2022 Parks, Recreation and Open Space Master Plan.

Though such an acquisition would only occur after “comprehensive recreation planning and public outreach,” according to Jones, he also suggested a process that might allow the city to purchase the property by the end of 2023.

That process involves securing Conservation Futures funding, identifying the property as a “need” in the coming Parks Master Plan and creating a site-specific plan for the property.

Asked whether Pilcher planned to engage in the process outlined by Jones, though, Hume responded, “Unfortunately, the timeframe outlined in that letter does not work for us absent some firm financial commitment from the City.”

Jones, in turn, told The Spokesman-Review that making such a commitment would be “very difficult right now” for the Parks department.

“The financial hit we had last year was massive because of COVID,” Jones said. “So we just don’t have unappropriated reserves to be able to contribute.”

Jones noted, however, that the City Council and Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration may have other ideas about the possibility of such a commitment.

Kirsten Angell is among those who hopes a solution comes through.

Angell helps facilitate an informal group of citizens who came together in October and have been meeting weekly to strategize about how to conserve the land.

The group calls its proposal the Latah Environmental Agricultural Fisheries Heritage, or LEAF, project.

“LEAF’s vision of expanding public access to the High Drive Bluff trails system, restoring the creekside area of Hangman Creek, and re-establishing a working organic farm on the arable land is gaining momentum and building support,” the project’s website states.

But while evidence of that support is clear in a video posted to the Friends of the Bluff Facebook page, where a wide range of advocates argue for the urgency of saving the land from development, Angell acknowledges that the path to preservation “is a time-consuming one and it’s a slow one … and the landowner wants to pull the trigger.”

She credited the city with its longstanding effort to fund a purchase of the land and Pilcher for continuing to give the process more time, but Angell also noted that as “this conversation has dragged on … the cost of the property has continued to go up.”

With the odds of the city’s efforts looking unlikely to succeed, Angell said her group is hitching its hopes to the possibility that a private entity will intervene.

“Unless we have some kind of angel investor pop out of the woodwork,” she said, “we’re in a pickle.”

Angell emphasized that the backers of LEAF aren’t against growth and recognize the need for housing, but she said the future of development in the Latah Valley only enhances the urgency of preserving the Pilcher property.

“We feel like so much is at stake,” Angell said, rattling off a long list of opportunities the land could offer the community, including space for sustainable agriculture, for riparian restoration and education, for open space, for connections to “hundreds of miles of trails” and for restoring native fisheries.

But, she acknowledged, her group “can’t make it happen. We can’t force it. We just have to hold our breath and wait and hope that it happens and that it’s successful and that the community doesn’t lose this opportunity. … Once it’s developed, it’s gone. There’s no public access.”

Hume suggested Pilcher is sympathetic to these arguments but also that the time to build homes on the land is nearing, with Spokane in the midst of what Hume called “an unprecedented housing crisis.”

“We have committed the past 5 years to exploring ways to make a public purchase of the property work,” Hume added. “The property appears to be an important community asset, and we generally like the idea that it could be preserved. We’ve demonstrated a commitment to a public purchase by holding the Property off the market and have participated in dozens of conversations about how such a purchase might come together.”

But after “lots of conversations with City Council members, Parks leadership, Leaf representative, Friends of the Bluff representatives and Conservation Futures administrators regarding the conservation of the Property,” Hume said the “City’s interest in purchasing the Property does not appear to match our timeframe.”

He also suggested that a sale to a different buyer could be in the works.

“We have received recent expressions of interest from purchasers not related to the City and we are in very early stage discussions with them,” Hume wrote.

If the property is developed, the 94 homes “will likely range in size from 1,600 square foot two-story townhomes at the base of the bluff to 3,600 square foot detached houses on the larger parcels along Latah Creek,” according to a 2019 city staff report on the project.

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