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Land-Use Limits 

In the name of saving Fairchild, County Commissioner Al French has made a solid case for better planning in Spokane County.

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Fearful that further development near Fairchild Air Force Base might put it at political risk, the Spokane County commissioners, over the objections of angry landowners who could see dollar signs, have refused to grant requests to up-zone. Commissioner Al French responded to one petitioner by pointing out that there is nothing in state law “to protect the speculative interest in land.”

When I read this quote in the Spokesman-Review, I did a double-take, then a triple-take. Al French? Mr. Private Property? The Al French who owes so much of his political success to the support he gets from land speculators — to people who view any mention at all of a “public interest” as tantamount to a socialist plot? That Al French? He said this to private property owners? And in public?

All I can say is wow! The thing is, on this matter, the commissioners have every reason to be concerned about the future of Fairchild. The base has barely survived a couple of closing drills. As we know, Congress, back in the late ’80s, finally punted on the issue and formed this so-called independent Base Realignment and Closing Commission (BRACC). Today, local pressure isn’t supposed to matter; however, what formally doesn’t matter, informally often does. I have to think that the lower Puget Sound naval bases have done OK because, for so many years, the very influential Norm Dicks represented the region. As did the equally wellrespected Tom Foley represent the Fifth District.

But Foley has been gone for 18 years, and Dicks is leaving. You can’t reduce influence and clout to organization charts. Respect can’t be imposed. And the national security world is changing.

With this as the backdrop, here’s what the county commissioners must know: The United State Air Force is rapidly becoming a service branch in search of a mission. That’s right, the USAF is trying to figure out how it fits into the long-term national security picture. All one has to do to see what is happening is to compare the declining Air Force budgets with those of the Navy and Army. Beginning with Eisenhower’s “Bigger Bang for the Buck” defense strategy (otherwise known as Mutually Assured Destruction), the Air Force commanded more than 45 percent of the total defense budget. That percentage held throughout the Vietnam era, actually pretty much until the end of the Cold War. But today? The Air Force budget has dropped to only about 22 percent of the total defense budget and is likely to drop still further.

Couple this dramatic inter-service funding redistribution with the expectation that overall defense spending will continue to decline regard less of who wins in November (no matter how much bluster we hear from Mr. Romney to the contrary), and you can see why the concerns expressed by the commissioners are most understandable.

The situation can be summed up in the tongue-in-cheek advice being tossed towards prospective college students: If you don’t like flying, the Air Force Academy is the place for you.

It’s that bad.

But here’s the thing: The analysis that Mr. French and his colleagues applied to the trade-offs between public interest and private interest out on the West Plains is an analysis that should be applied to so many other issues. Indeed, it might be that with some careful planning there, we would actually improve the chances that Fairchild would stay. We won’t know until we — and by “we,” I refer more to an outlook than an office — look at all the options, which presupposes that there’s a public interest lurking somewhere in almost every land development.

Think of the related possibilities that would improve civic life and land values throughout the Spokane region. We could get serious about reining in urban sprawl. Or perhaps we could actually make “centers and corridors” work. How about our own version of the Portland Greenbelt? Maybe add some urban design in places like Cheney. How about that light rail? Now there’s a public-interest thought.

But planning? In Spokane? It’s like cultural heresy. We seem ever-intent on making the case that what’s good for Kirkland or Portland or Santa Barbara or Santa Fe or even Liberty Lake isn’t good for Spokane.

Here’s my heretical suggestion: Let’s not allow French’s insight to slip off into the lost-and-found bin of local ironies. Instead of doing what we’re used to doing, that is, “Etch-a-Sketch” in a situational answer as our culture demands, why not stick with the “Etch?” Yes, in stone, above our public buildings and on the dais at City Hall. If I might be permitted a paraphrase: “Property rights do not extend to profiting on land speculation.”

What a refreshing thought.

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