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The Salvatori Effect 

Questions about how Spokane should grow seem to be drawing more attention to little old city council races

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The Spokane Homebuilders Association recently urged the Spokane City Council to fill Steve Salvatori's vacated seat with a Salvatori clone. Their spokesperson states that his group is concerned over taxes, and that they seek to reestablish the balance that existed before Salvatori resigned. This demand sits somewhere between silly and outrageous, without ever passing "GO" along the way. The Homebuilders certainly can promote whomever or whatever it chooses, but surely the rest of us should wonder about what's really going on.

Here's the rest of the story:

First, the question of taxes is a red herring, as Council President Ben Stuckart has made clear by pledging not to raise them. Second, "balance," in the vernacular, has nuthin' to do with it. What's really at stake is growth management — or, as the association and its allies prefer, "growth non-management."

On the one side of the issue are developers — some are homebuilders — who want to build whatever and wherever they want. Expanding the urban growth boundary is key to their plans, because UGBs put cities on the hook to provide the necessary urban infrastructure and services.

On the other side we have the city, townships and various citizen groups that first want to weigh the impacts, costs and benefits and "urban effects" that the expansion of urban growth boundaries always bring. Call this "smart growth."

The issue then pits growth in the form of "sprawl" against "smart growth." Many scholars and writers have written about the difference. Charles Montgomery, in his book Happy City, uses the term "urban blast radius" to depict sprawl where we produce a built environment that takes "up more space per person and is more expensive to build and operate than any urban form ever constructed."

Parenthetically, this debate produces a paradox. Around here, we associate the word "conservative" with those who want to expand urban growth boundaries and the word "liberal" with those who don't. Yet arguably, it's the "smart growth" supporters who are the real "conservatives" — if we understand the word to refer to "conserving" what we have. To the contrary, "liberals" then become those who take the view that all growth should be supported no matter the disruption or redistribution of public resources, both social and economic, that growth may cause. It's a bit confusing.

Just a year ago things were going quite well for our pro-growth, non-managed constituency. They controlled the Board of County Commissioners, dominated by Al French, and in David Condon they had a politically simpatico Spokane mayor who was supported by a bare majority on the City Council. Yes, Condon first opposed French's most recent growth boundary end run, but finally he fell into line — or, as one appalled pro-growth advocate put it, he "came to his senses."

The first bit of bad news came when Candace Mumm, regarded as "a liberal," won a seat. The voters in District 3 elected a candidate who had chaired the Plan Commission that wrote Spokane's "smart growth" Comprehensive Land Use Plan. So when Mumm arrived, that narrow 4-3 majority favoring growth at all costs changed to a 4-3 majority favoring "smart growth." Trouble enough. Still, a 4-3 vote wasn't veto-proof. But then Salvatori leaves town.

Land developers love Al French, and for good reason. While Olympia recognizes that "cities are the units of government most appropriate to provide urban government services" and that "it is not appropriate that urban governmental services be extended to or expanded in rural areas," our state continues to shuffle along with an outdated, 19th-century form of county government that shifts the balance of power to non-urban interests that need expanded urban services, always on the city's dime.

Despite the fact that French both helped to write and wholeheartedly supported the same document Mumm worked on, as the local king of "urban blast radius" sprawl, he works against the spirit of the Comp Plan. Lately it seems the City Council is the only thing stopping our county from anything-goes growth planning.

The five finalists announced by the City Council to replace Steve Salvatori aren't sprawl enablers by any stretch. But these same issues will be back, framing the debate in 2015, when Salvatori's replacement will need to stand for election on his or her own.

What makes the Homebuilders' interest in city politics more ominous is that business organizations always enjoy huge political advantages, as every beleaguered citizens' and neighborhood group knows. Such organizations have money, instant mobilization, legal resources at the ready and staff support. On the "smart-growth" side, neighborhood groups, environmental groups — even small towns — are often less organized. And in our political world, "organized" trumps "unorganized," and "well-funded" usually beats "cash-strapped." ♦

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