A seven-home housing development with an access road is poised to rise on vacant land along the bluffs above East Central’s Underhill Park.
The developers of the project, called the Ben Burr Estates, and the city of Spokane say it will bring new housing to a long underused area separate from the historic park. But some neighbors are calling for a pause, arguing the area is a natural headquarters for the South Hill’s roving wild turkeys and other wildlife.
“We have porcupines, pileated woodpeckers; we have Cooper’s hawk nests up here,” said Sam Mace, who lives at the base of the hill rising on Underhill’s southern border. “I’ll just say, a lot of kids in this neighborhood – they don’t get taken to Riverside (State Park). This is their nature.”
That nature is partially on a little more than an acre of private land zoned for single-family residential homes. While the winding walking paths and towering ponderosa pines may appear an extension of the nearby park established in 1912, it is not part of the park and is thus still developable.
With the land changing hands twice last year, it’s within the owner’s right to build the road and homes, said Marlene Feist, the city’s Public Works director.
“Like we’ve seen in other parts of the city, this has been vacant a long time and it’s adjacent to a beautiful park,” she said. “The owners of the property have a right to develop that property.”
Several partners are working on the project and have had site plans on file with the city for weeks, said Ben Baker, one of the partners involved in the development. They have agreed to improve the adjacent gravel roads and install other infrastructure as required by city codes, and wooden stakes were recently driven into the earth where workers hope to build the road soon.
“The whole plan is to come in, take the existing right of way, bring in utilities and everything else, and make it an actual paved road,” Baker said.
That paved road would pass right by the home of Steve Hannum, who lives at the current end of 10th Avenue and owns lots on either side of the proposed road. Hannum, who lives on the property with his girlfriend and aging heeler mix, Syble, said Tuesday he was concerned about traffic and wildlife should homes and a road be built where proposed.
“They told me they were going to give an 8-foot setback,” Hannum said, as Syble snoozed on the gravel path that marks the city’s right of way and a gang of about a dozen turkeys mingled by his front door. “So you’re telling me, cars are going to crash into my house all the time? I mean, that’s what’s going to happen.”
Roads and sidewalks will be built on the site to city standards, Feist said, requiring at least a width of 32 feet, according to city codes. Water and sewer services will also be extended as part of the project.
Baker said the project is the type of infill development that should be in high demand in the city, given its housing shortage, and that the work would improve property values for surrounding home owners.
“We’re not trying to come in and do anything super abrasive,” he said.
Mace, Hannum and their neighbor, Mike Boyle, all said they appreciated the need for new housing. But seven homes on an acre of land near the park wasn’t going to solve the shortage.
“I totally support the need for that,” Mace said. “We have lots of derelict houses and places that are going to get sold, and places that are for multifamily housing, or condos, or that type of thing to happen. This is not the place.”
“It was the first park in the city to incorporate active fields, in addition to the natural habitat,” Boyle said. It’s retained that feel, he said, and he brings his two children not only to play, but also observe and learn from nature.
Neighbors now say they hope to mount a fundraising effort to buy back the property. It was sold for $62,500 to a potential developer in January 2020, then subsequently resold for $110,000 in June 2020 to the current owner.
Mace said she hoped she could appeal to the Spokane City Council and the developers for more time to provide input on the project. But because the land has already been set aside for development in the city’s zoning codes, there’s no change in use for the land, Feist said. So there wouldn’t be a formal comment-making period for neighbors to weigh in on the construction.
Feist likened the situation to a home using a nearby vacant lot as a sports field. When the owner of that lot decides to build, the neighbor doesn’t have the ability to stop development of that field, she said, even if they’ve grown used to using it.
“That’s what makes this tough,” Feist said.
Baker said the area had been the source of several complaints in recent years about illegal camping and loitering. Building homes on the land, with close access to the Ben Burr Trail connecting the neighborhood to the University District and downtown, would help alleviate that problem as well, he said.
“We’ve already more than once come in after the police have ran people out of there,” he said.
Mace acknowledged the presence of homeless campers and the issues it presents.
“But every park does,” she said.
Feist said the developers are “about midway through the permitting process” for the road and utilities that would serve the new development. The city plans to issue an approval letter as early as this week for the design of the improvements, with construction of the homes to follow.
Mace and her fellow neighbors, however, still hope there’s a way to preserve the natural area that has been adopted as a spot of respite in East Central.
“It’s going to completely change the character, not only of the neighborhood, but more important this park,” she said.
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