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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A new, longer pause on development may soon be coming to the Latah Valley

The Spokane City Council will consider a new, longer ban on new development in Latah Valley area while development rules are overhauled and funding secured for a long-delayed fire station.

A one-year ban on projects on undeveloped land in the Latah/Hangman and Grandview/Thorpe neighborhoods is scheduled for a vote on May 20. The moratorium would not apply to projects already in the preapproval permitting stage.

Opponents call the move anti-growth amid an ongoing housing crisis, arguing a second moratorium reneges on the agreements made during the last one, which began in September 2022 and lasted six months. When that moratorium concluded, the city overhauled the fees it charges developers to mitigate the impact of new housing on roads and water infrastructure, funding improvements to both systems. Those fees had not been updated for years, contributing to infrastructure in the Latah Valley lagging behind a growing population for decades.

Supporters, some of whom have joined the council since the prior moratorium expired last March, point to last year’s deadly fire season, including the nearby Gray fire, concerns over the city’s ability to quickly respond to fire in the area and overburdened roads leading in and out of the community that may not suffice during evacuations.

A significant amount of the pressure behind the proposed moratorium comes from residents of the impacted area, including members of the organization Citizen Action for Latah Valley.

Adam Marshall co-founded that group three years ago with his wife, Molly, who has recently stepped away during a run for Spokane County Commission, and Kai Huschke. Adam Marshall wants to see significant changes to the city’s processes for approving development in areas such as the Latah Valley with lagging infrastructure, with more emphasis on new projects bringing significant improvements to affected roads at the same time.

The problems Adam Marshall sees with the current paradigm are extensive: despite rapid growth in housing, there has been relatively little improvement to parks, water infrastructure and other components of the area. Routes into downtown Spokane from the area are limited, with most traffic relying on a strained U.S. Route 195.

“We realized a lot of the valley’s different areas face the same issues and challenges, with the risk situation on 195, lack of access in and out of the neighborhoods, infrastructure being behind by decades,” Marshall said. “With growth happening, these situations kept becoming worse.”

Those issues are made more urgent, he argues, given increased fire danger. In some cases, insurance companies are no longer renewing fire insurance for homes in the area, he said.

The concerns are not new. By 2015, the Spokane Fire Department reported that it took significantly longer than average for a fire truck to reach the Latah Valley from the nearest station than elsewhere in the city. In response, a temporary fire station was constructed, with a permanent one expected by 2020 but it was never built.

The city has secured around $850,000 for a permanent facility on the Cheney-Spokane Road Interchange, but that project is expected to cost upwards of $8 million. Some portion of the major property tax increase proposed by Mayor Lisa Brown would be dedicated to the project, though that recently got punted from the August ballot and is not expected to go to voters until at least November.

Fire concern is a primary motivator for the new moratorium, said Councilman Paul Dillon, who is sponsoring the ordinance along with Councilwoman Lili Navarette.

Latah Valley residents “are definitely feeling the fear, especially after what we saw last summer,” Dillon said. “Latah is really at a chokepoint right now.”

Dillon believes that the last moratorium was overly focused on development fees and not enough on development standards, which he argues would pre-emptively pump the brakes on growth in areas that cannot handle it and include higher standards for fire mitigation for projects that are allowed.

Some opponents to another moratorium worry that halting growth in the area will not only further strain the local housing market, but limit the city’s ability to fund the projects needed to fix the longstanding problems in the Latah Valley. New development would pay bigger fees to improve roads after those fees were increased following the end of the last moratorium, for instance, but halting development means halting some of those payments, said Councilman Michael Cathcart.

“Future growth pays for future infrastructure needs,” said Cathcart, who voted in favor of higher fees last year despite concerns in order to get other council members to agree to not extend the last moratorium.

“I would much rather see (higher fees) than shut down housing altogether,” he said.

While he acknowledges that the area has severe infrastructure needs, he believes that an anti-growth or “not in my backyard” mentality is also motivating supporters of the new moratorium.

Marshall does hesitate when asked whether growth should come to the Latah Valley area even after the end of a one-year moratorium and the implementation of new development standards and a more firm roadmap for infrastructure improvements. His focus is primarily on the area’s current residents, he acknowledges.

“Growth will be a conversation down the road, and the city will need to look at does it make sense to have more homes and if so, they should be careful about where they’re going because of the additional infrastructure costs to build on the outlying areas of the city,” he said.

But he also flatly rejects the argument that growth will be able to pay for the problems created by growth, let alone make up for lost time.

“I think it’s a false argument when you say that you have a problem based on issues complicated by growth, and then expect growth to fix them,” he said. “Latah is already struggling, and we don’t need to wait to see where the breaking point is, because we know we’re already approaching it.”