On the surface everything looks pretty simple. A landowner has a piece of land - roughly 2.5 acres - that used to be in the outlying part of town. Following years of growth and new developments, the land is now surrounded by apartment complexes, a brand new grocery store and a mobile home park. Wanting to tap into the increase in traffic on the arterial and the stream of customers visiting the grocery store, the landowner wants to develop his property. But there's an obstacle: the land is zoned for office use only, not for commercial development, so the landowner goes to the city and asks for a change of zoning.
Years ago, that was the way to do it, because land-use decisions in Spokane were made on a case-by-case basis -- they were all site specific. But with the adoption of the comprehensive plan in 2001, things have changed. Today, major zoning changes require an amendment to the comprehensive plan, and changes will apply to similar parcels across town.
"Yes, we do things differently now. We recognize that there is no landowner out there who lives on an isolated island," says Candice Mumm, chair of the Plan Commission, a volunteer board that oversees applications for zoning changes and comprehensive plan amendments. "If your property is not zoned the way you want it to be, you have to go through a comprehensive plan amendment instead of just a zoning change for your specific property."
Actually, in this case, according to the city Planning Department, the comprehensive plan amendment would apply to 24 sites across town.
"What we want is a comprehensive plan for the whole city," explains Mumm, who is opposed to the change. "It's central to the comprehensive plan that the neighborhoods determine what goes into them. We spent five years and $7 million to develop this plan. We know it works, both to benefit the economy and to the health of the community. Why else would we do it?"
In the case of this property, which is located on the northeast corner of Nevada Street and Lyons Avenue, the Plan Commission looked at the landowner's proposal and evaluated it according to the eight criteria that have to be met for commercial property to be in compliance with the comp plan.
The commission's final decision was that the proposal failed on four of these criteria, so it recommended against allowing the change.
Planners at city hall did a staff report on the property as well, and that report, too, concluded that the development fails on four of eight criteria and that the zoning change shouldn't be granted.
"These decisions were not based on a whim or anything like that," says Steve Franks, the city planner who wrote the report. "The city council had adopted the rules and the process we worked through , yet [the council] still overruled our recommendation."
When Mumm showed up for the city council meeting on July 14, she was fully expecting the council to follow the recommendations of the Plan Commission and the Planning Department to reject the change. Instead, the council has kept the issue moving forward; the council is expected to take a final vote on the issue at its Aug. 25 meeting.
"We had no indication that the city council was interested in a major change of the definition of commercial areas in the city," says Mumm. "To say we were surprised is an understatement."
Less Comprehensive? -- Who wasn't so surprised was attorney Meg Arpin, who represents the landowner and applicant, Nevada Properties, LLC.
"The city council is the ultimate policy maker, and it doesn't have to follow the recommendations of either the Planning Department or the Plan Commission," says Arpin. "There is a lot of misinformation circulating out there about this amendment -- including that it would apply to 24 sites. It would not. Out of those 24 sites, 15 are already covered by the existing exemption language and three are located within a [development] center where the rules are different."
Arpin explains that the amendment seeks to allow the expansion of an existing commercial designation at the intersection of two principal arterial streets, or onto properties that are not already designated for residential use. The intersection should have a light and a traffic volume greater than 20,000 cars per day. The exemption language she refers to was added to the comprehensive plan just before its final approval, to assure that existing businesses would be able to expand without having to change location completely.
The introduction of a traffic count into the equation has city planner Steve Franks concerned.
"Nowhere in the comprehensive plan do we take traffic counts into account," says Franks. "Why not? Because traffic is a fluent number -- it changes. Just because there are 20,000 cars going through an intersection today, doesn't mean they will be going through there in a year."
Arpin says it's nothing to get too hung up on.
"Some people seem to think that if this amendment passes, then the moment there is a signal and 20,000 cars going through it, then there is an automatic change to commercial designation -- that is not the case," she says. "That's scaring people. The fear that convenience stores will begin to pop up on each corner doesn't exist. Nothing happens immediately to the other sites if this amendment passes. The people who own those would have to go in and apply for their own amendment and go through the exact same process as we have gone through." Plus, she adds that any land that is already zoned residential couldn't be changed at all.
"We are talking about going from office or industrial to commercial," says Arpin. She says her client is looking to develop the corner part of the property, across the street from the gas station on the corner of Lyons and Nevada. This portion goes 420 feet up Nevada and all the way back to the mobile home park located on Lyons -- the rest would be developed as offices. She says her client has had calls from a few banks and some restaurants interested in locating on the corner, but there is no main tenant selected yet.
"It's just very difficult to develop this as something other than commercial," she says. "But if this amendment passes, it doesn't mean that the people on the west side of Hamilton can go commercial as well. That area is already zoned residential."
Setting a Precedent -- Mumm says it was the new Albertson's that started the whole thing.
"That set in motion this whole thing about putting in another strip mall next door," she says. "The area in question is already zoned for office use and that, according to the comprehensive plan, is an acceptable type of transitional development between commercial and residential properties."
During all the hearings on the change this spring, the city's Planning Department received many letters from both private people and neighborhood councils opposing the amendment. Only one of those letters was in favor of the amendment; everyone else was opposed.
One of those opposed is Richard Rush of the Cliff-Cannon Neighborhood Council on the South Hill.
"I wrote on behalf of the neighborhood council because we are concerned with the whole process this amendment has followed," he says, adding that he is concerned about the precedent that will be set and how that could affect other neighborhoods.
For now, the final ruling on the ordinance has been put on hold until the city council meeting on Aug. 25, allowing the Plan Commission to meet one more time. Mumm says the city's legal department is working with the applicant
"My personal belief is that there's a way of making this change so it only applies to this land," says Mumm. "Our job is to look at the consistency with the rest of the comprehensive plan when it comes to changes. As I step back, what I see is a change from the old way of doing things to the new way. The community really should have a say in what's going on, just as we've seen here. And the upside of the discussion at city hall is that perhaps more people there will understand that if you make a change in one part of the city, it applies to the rest as well."
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