Unbound is Unwise

Defacing a beautiful county with soul-deadening urban sprawl is neither acceptable nor inevitable.

Update: Read Daniel Walters’s followup story in the Inlander 3/12/13

Ten minutes from downtown Spokane you can still take a left turn off a thoroughfare and find yourself not only in nature, but with views of something other than noveau riche housing developments and freeways. One of my favorite places that fits these directions is above and beyond a high wall of basalt palisades, opening to meadows of balsamroot, camas, and serviceberry, with a horizon of pines in two directions, mountains in a third.

Meadow in the palisades of west Spokane.
Meadow in the palisades of west Spokane.

I can’t help you measure this experience in cash. But I think I can help you evaluate it, or at least comprehend it, in terms of what is truly precious. My doctor would say it lowers my troublesome blood pressure. But beyond such intimate physiology, there’s just a spiritual richness that comes with living in a place that’s not only aesthetically beautiful, but beautiful within the reach of our daily lives. It’s a form of being in love, and I write that knowing of the genuine heartbreak that comes in witnessing places that we treasure being gouged by bulldozers and then paved over for the sake of “progress” and “growth.” Five Mile Prairie isn’t a prairie anymore, and though some are materially richer because of it, something of greater value was lost.

For at least a decade, now, Spokane County has endured something akin to governmental bi-polar disorder when it comes to growth. “Near Nature, Near Perfect” is an economic development mantra. It’s a catch-phrase to market the Spokane area to people who really want what we’ve got, which is a rare combination of urban amenities leaning casually against a rural wilderness, and the remarkable recreation this affords. But politically we don’t have much of a commitment, at least not yet, to the nature part. Mostly, we want to make developers and land-owners happy and rich. It’s both sad and senseless to sell out the public interest this way. In the long run, we’ll all be poorer for it.

As I reported five years ago, the Center for Justice (led by the efforts of our current executive director, Rick Eichstaedt) became deeply involved in a high stakes legal battle against a corrupt county government that openly defied the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) and public records law. The raw purpose of this defiance was to serve the interests of developers who’d supported the Republican troika on the County Commission at the time. Our clients  were individuals and neighborhood organizations trying to preserve the rural nature of areas, like the beautiful palisades tract in west Spokane, and protect them from development.

NearsmuCounty government is discernibly less corrupt than it was in the mid-2000s, but the pressures and nature of the political dynamics hasn’t much changed. Next week the Commission will conduct a hearing to consider well over a dozen “study areas” and “individual requests” to expand the county’s urban growth area (UGA) beyond its current boundaries.

There are compelling, nitty-gritty economic arguments against the sprawl that the proposed expansions to the UGA would accommodate. The state-wide group Futurewise does a terrific job pointing out that these proposed expansions are notorious for thrusting new costs on to taxpayers because of the expense of extending public infrastructure to serve the new developments.

But there really is a simple show-stopper here that should settle the issue, not just now, but for the foreseeable future. The simple truth is this—the existing urban growth area for Spokane County is not bursting at the seams. There is plenty of room inside the existing UGA boundaries to accommodate new development. So this idea that we need to expand the UGA to accommodate new populations and economic activity is just a canard.

If this piece of news seems familiar to you, it’s probably because it came up two years ago when the County was trying to push through an emergency UGA expansion to grease the skids for a rural grab land out on the West Plains to site a new jail. With the Center’s help, the jail proposal was quickly withdrawn after it became clear it couldn’t withstand land use scrutiny.

The same is true for the expansion proposals that will come up for a hearing next week.

Here’s what the county’s Planning Technical Advisory Committee reported a year ago:

The Regional Land Quantity Analysis for Spokane County, published October 2010 and revised in May of 2011 (the “LQA”), concludes that the existing UGA has the capacity to accommodate an additional 117,800 people, 4,259 more than the forecasted increase of 113,541. The LQA also concludes that the current UGA has a sufficient amount of commercial and industrial zoned property to accommodate the 2031 demand, with a surplus commercial land supply of 4,828 acres and a surplus industrial land supply of 3,087 acres.

Of course the best thing for us to do, in the long run, is elect County Commissioners who are committed to upholding not just the Growth Management Act, but the County’s own comprehensive land use plans. In the short run, though, groups like Futurewise and the Neighborhood Alliance need our help and voices to preserve the essential nature of Spokane County. You can register your voice  by attending the hearing on Wednesday the 27th, or by calling or emailing your commissioner, or by going here to sign this petition being circulated by Futurewise.

–Tim Connor

(Tim Connor’s commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Justice.)
The public hearing on expansion of Spokane County’s urban growth area is set for Feb. 27 at 5:30 p.m. in the commissioners’ assembly room in the lower level of the county Public Works Building, 1036 W. Broadway Ave.

2 responses on “Unbound is Unwise

  1. Anne_Ominous

    Yay, Tim!

    I have spent much of my own time trying to fight this kind of BS on the part of City and County. Glad to see that people are still fighting the good fight.

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