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Culture of Pretend 

The John Wayne approach to handling growth hasn't corralled anything

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Several years back, on a downtown street, I ran into a well-connected local businesswoman who was leaving Spokane to move back East. We got to talking about local issues, and I asked, "How do you define 'economic development?'"

Her response went something like this: "Well, I've learned that in Spokane, economic development most often begins and ends with making a profit off land speculation. It's a cultural thing, and government's job here is to help make the speculation pay off."

Which brings us to Spokane County's latest workaround regarding the urban growth boundary. For starters, it gives new meaning to the term "building ahead of demand."

It's all part of the county commissioners' general assault on growth management. No surprise, they cloak their agenda under the banners of "economic development" and "jobs." But in reality, we know that we deal here with the proverbial elephant in the room — that aforementioned political culture. We have commissioners who are both in and of that culture.

Meanwhile, our city council, led by President Ben Stuckart and Jon Snyder, stuck up for the city's rights and led a successful vote to stop the commissioners' policies until the proper authorities could review the decisions. To the rescue, Mayor David Condon. Under pressure, he vetoed the council's decision.

The upshot? Yes, folks, all us residents of the city (and a small town or two) will pay the bills — water, sewer, police, roads. In other words, the city will subsidize all this "building ahead of demand." At least we're funding jobs in the exciting industry of land speculation.

Donovan Rypkema, a Washington, D.C., urban design consultant who has made several visits to Spokane, indirectly anticipated the problem during an appearance here to discuss growth management.

"As a fiscally conservative Republican, which I am, I will say that there's no more fiscally irresponsible act a city and county can do than keep expanding sewer, water, police, streetlights and curb and gutter, out and out and out; all the while near-in neighborhoods and the downtown are left to deteriorate."

Nationally recognized traffic engineer and consultant Walter Kulash put the matter even more directly. He said: "Old established areas subsidize new growth always, period; there is no question about it. Tax flow is always out of built-up areas to the suburbs that are still building."

It doesn't have to be this way. But in the West and the South, most often it is. In contrast to what we see in Spokane County, for example, drive through New England and you'll see a completely different form of urban growth — for the most part, it's invisible. Follow Google Maps from Boston to, say, the New Hampshire border and note the shocking comparison with what our county government has allowed to happen between the city and the Idaho line.

My theory: It's all because the New England city and townships got there first, thus county government never had the clout and presence that it has in the South and the West. In New England, the land speculator has to first deal with the city or township — where the playing field is a whole lot more level. And if that doesn't work, the speculator has to convince the state legislature — which is much more diverse than is any one county government, including Spokane's. In New England pluralism, if that's the term, works to force compromise, which we haven't seen at all during any of our debates over urban growth boundaries.

Thus it was that when push came to shove, Mayor Condon caved. The town's version of "that old time religion" once again won out at, of course, the city's expense. So what else is new?

San Francisco architect Daniel Solomon was among the first to observe the paradox: The West is the most rapidly urbanizing region in America; unfortunately almost all its built environment comes in suburban forms. (Not quite everywhere, however; in Portland, infill growth is robust thanks to Oregon's strictly enforced growth management laws. And its "economic development" and "jobs" are chugging along just fine.)

It's the commissioners' challenge to confront this problem; instead, they're making it worse. For starters, zoning is a disaster and there's little design review. But the worst problem of all is our John Wayne culture. Rampant in the West, individualism marginalizes anyone who voices even a vague sense of community.

About those who oppose efforts to rein in suburban growth, Bernard DeVoto once observed that "the only true individualists in the West ended up on the wrong end of a rope put there by cooperating citizens."

Yes, more and more citizens are figuring out that the whole John Wayne routine is an act. We've been pretending for too long that raw land speculation is a strategy for "jobs" and "economic development." American cities that are thriving are already looking to 2024; here in Spokane, we're still stuck in 1954. ♦

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