Last week, Spokane County’s big Urban Growth Area expansion was rejected by the state of Washington’s Growth Management Hearings Board. While Spokane County has a chance to appeal the decision, many properties have already been established in the expanded area.
In the months between when the County Commissioners approved the Urban Growth Area expansion and when the Growth Management Hearings Board rejected it, 640 lots, across six different properties countywide, put their roots down, according to a map from the Department of Commerce. Four of those lots are for the Central Valley School District, while the other 636 are for residential development. Of that total, 181 lots are in the South Glenrose area, where local neighbors have been challenging the development.
Land within Urban Growth Areas allows developers to build much more densely. So if a developer has land outside the UGA and it suddenly comes into the UGA, that land becomes much more valuable. Those quick-acting developers will be allowed to put dense development on that property even though the expansion was ruled invalid.
Under Washington state’s law, properties are “vested” as soon as a developer turns in a valid predevelopment application. To land use advocates, it’s a loophole that allows large amounts of sprawl to duck Washington state’s growth management legislation: All developer-friendly commissioners have to do is to expand the urban growth area, and even if they’re legally required to reverse their decision, the vested development stays.
In Olympia, some legislators are talking about introducing legislation to change the vesting law.
"The prospect we are seeing in Spokane County of developments being permitted under an illegal land use map is concerning, and we are exploring ways to prevent a repeat of this situation in the future," state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien) wrote in a statement to the Center for Justice in November.
Meanwhile, County Commissioner Todd Mielke isn’t surprised that the Growth Management Hearings Board rejected the county’s expansion.
“In the nine years I’ve been a county commissioner, the Growth Management Hearings Board has ruled against us nearly every time… We do absolutely nothing right in their eyes,” Mielke says. “We have appealed every decision to the courts.” Most of the time, he says, those appeals have been successful. It's possible that, if the County appeals, all or part of the expansion will be ruled valid.
Department of Commerce's Map of Vested Projects In Spokane County (zoom in to make it larger)