Call Rick Eichstaedt “the soother.” After years of analyses, deliberation and committee meetings, Spokane County commissioners last year decided on a site for a proposed new jail. To speed along the process, commissioners deemed the project in September an “emergency,” thus circumventing processes surrounding land-use laws and putting the project on the fast track.
But last Thursday, Eichstaedt, a public interest attorney with the Center for Justice, put on the brakes.
At a county Planning Commission meeting, he stood before its bespectacled members — an annotated, 10-page memo in hand — to tell them why the county commissioners’ labeling of the project as an emergency was not only wrong, but illegal.
Mike Cummings, a planning commissioner, said Eichstaedt’s report was “eye-opening.”
“We all had questions, and those questions need to be answered,” says the commission’s vice chair and local developer, Pete Rayner. “The questions that came up just in the dialogue there, issues raised by the Center for Justice: Is what we’re doing legal? … Everybody read [Eichstaedt’s] letter and said, ‘We need to know answers to these things.’”
The proposed site for the new jail is the kind of flat, barren land typical of the West Plains. There’s not much there, so you might think it’s the perfect place to build a $200 million detention facility.
Except that it’s about a half-mile from the edge of the Urban Growth Area, or UGA, outside of which development is not allowed.
This was the problem facing Spokane County commissioners when they settled on the site for the new jail.
A year and a half ago, 10 possible sites for a new Spokane County Jail were ranked, according to a number of criteria. Fifth on the list was a 40-acre site on the West Plains, just west of I-90 at the Medical Lake exit.
A month after that analysis, another was released with different criteria and the same site rose to second place. The study explained that the location was outside of the UGA but that it could be absorbed by following the usual process of applying for an extension of the boundary. This process might have taken a year.
“It should be noted,” the analysis continued, “that the Board of County Commissioners, through the County’s declaration of emergency, could reduce this time and process.”
Within a few months, commissioners chose that as the site for a new jail.
Then they declared an emergency.
"If not being able to detain people that break the law because you don’t have adequate facilities doesn’t constitute a public safety emergency … I don’t know what does,” says County Commissioner Mark Richard. “I hope the public would agree.”
This is the central argument county leaders put forward to justify the jail expansion project: There’s just not adequate room for the incarcerated.
The project was first conceived when daily inmate populations at the jail and its satellite facility, Geiger Corrections Center, regularly pushed beyond 1,000. Jail officials, including the sheriff, also anticipated the 2013 end of their lease on Geiger, a World War II-era Army barracks.
Over the past year, jail populations dropped precipitously before recently climbing back to “critical” population levels around 800. No one’s sure why the population has yo-yoed, but critics of the jail expansion have seized upon this to battle the project.
Eichstaedt, however, says the proposed jail shouldn’t weigh in the decision.
“This action before you is not approving the jail,” he told the commission’s members. “It is approving the expansion of an Urban Growth Area, and it’s approving the re-zone to ‘light industrial.’ You’re not putting your rubber stamp on the jail. You’re solely taking land-use actions.”
Disputing the county’s declaration of an emergency, Eichstaedt cited in his letter comments from the Growth Management Hearings Boards in the 2006 case, Miotke v. Spokane County.
Board remains concerned about the County’s use of its ‘emergency’
provision to allow further expansion of the UGA,” the board wrote. “The
Board will reconsider sanctions if the County continues to use this
method to add additional land to the UGA.”
If approved, the change to the Urban Growth Area would rezone more than 400 acres as light industrial. Less than 10 percent of that land would actually be used for the jail, but because “islands” of development surrounded by rural homes and agriculture aren’t allowed, nine properties would also be absorbed and re-zoned.
Of all that acreage, 90 percent belongs to one company: Sam Lee & Associates. The county would only buy a 40-acre piece — which Richard says could go for “approximately $100,000” — but the other properties would still be re-zoned and available for industrial purposes.
It’s industrial land the county doesn’t need, according to the “Regional Land Quantity Analysis,” which was done last October in preparation for this year’s 10-year review of the UGA.
“Spokane County has a significant surplus of land available for industrial uses,” the analysis says. Within the UGA, there is currently almost 5,500 acres of vacant industrial land. Between now and 2031, the analysis figures industrial activities will take just over 1,000 acres. And the county will, considering other factors, still have a surplus of 3,000 acres of industrial land.
Eichstaedt pounced on this fact as well, buttressing his argument with another recent case before the hearings board.
or not, the [Growth Management Act] requires that all UGA expansions be
supported by the information in a Land Quality Analysis,” he wrote,
citing that case. “Accordingly, this proposal must be rejected.”
The Planning Commission reconvenes next Thursday, and it could make a decision regarding the jail site at that time. Whatever they decide, it is just a recommendation and is not binding for the county commissioners, says Richard.
Regardless, the commission’s vice chair, Rayner, says it’s important to make the right vote, and they’re free to decide any way they choose.
“There are no muzzles, and it’s not a rubber stamp deal,” he says. “We have to do our homework and we have to do it right. … I don’t want to be part of a Bigelow Gulch or a River Park Square.”