by JACOB H. FRIES & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & ast Friday, Mayor Mary Verner sent word through a spokeswoman that she was not to be disturbed. She was facing a deadline. Plugging away at her computer, she was laying out her big decision on the future of big-box megastores in south Spokane. In part because of how she sequestered herself, people began to speculate that Verner was going to use her first veto, which would block (at least temporarily) a new ordinance allowing big-box stores in a Southgate neighborhood zoned residential.
The maneuver would be newsworthy for the fact it would be the first mayoral veto since 2004, when then-Mayor Jim West rejected a rule requiring bike helmets. (Despite the city's strong mayor system, mayors haven't always seemed that strong.) The proposed development also represented an early challenge to the city's comprehensive plan, testing the balance between developers' property rights against the goal of neighborhood planning.
At 4:08 pm on Friday, the mayor's spokeswoman sent an e-mail to the local media delivering Verner's 507-word statement. She began by thanking the respective parties -- the developers who want to bring Home Depot and other stores to southeastern Spokane and the residents who demand a say in the matter.
Verner noted that the groups had hashed out a "reasonable compromise." The developers hoped for no restrictions on the size or number of buildings that could be put up, but in a compromise they agreed to three "large format" stores of more than 100,000 square feet. As part of the deal, "satellite structures" -- i.e., smaller stores -- were limited to 40,000 square feet, but in a move by the City Council, the restriction was expanded to 60,000 square feet.
That unilateral change, wrote Verner, was out of line. "It is my strong desire to veto the portion of the ordinance that allows 60,000 sq. ft.," her statement reads. But she couldn't do it, she explained, not without vetoing the whole deal and all the work that went into it. And since she didn't want to do that, she said, there was but one thing left to do: Allow the ordinance to take effect -- but without her signature.
Depending on your standpoint, one might interpret the move as a symbolic protest, an empty gesture or something in between. Southgate Neighborhood Council President Teresa Kafentzis says Verner's statement felt like a betrayal. People had supported Verner's campaign in large measure because of her promise to uphold the city's comp plan. "It kind of looked like a political game to us," she says of Verner's non-veto. "A strong mayor is supposed to be a leader."
Spokane architect Gary Bernardo, who has been working on the Home Depot proposal, reads Verner's statement differently -- as a message of general support for the agreement the groups reached together. Her displeasure with larger "satellite structures" seemed, in the end, to be a small matter. Developers hadn't even sought the expansion, and the difference between 40,000 and 60,000 square feet probably won't ever come into play, Bernardo says. He applauded Verner for helping bring the opposing sides to the table. "I think she was very much an instigator in getting the conversation to occur."
Councilman Richard Rush was the one member of the council who voted against the new ordinance. His reason: Developers didn't give up anything they really wanted, he says, and because he wanted the area to be designated as a "neighborhood center," which would've provided residents with more leverage in development talks. "With that zoning, we could have gotten a much more urban, pedestrian-friendly development in the area," he says.
Despite his opposition to the proposal, Rush says there was nothing Verner could have done. If she used her veto, she'd risk undermining what progress had been made; besides, the council probably had the votes to overturn a veto anyway, Rush says.
But if the veto would have been moot anyway, why not do it to send a message, asks Kitty Klitzke of Futurewise, a responsible-growth advocacy group that is planning to appeal the ordinance. "We were hoping Mayor Verner would do it and take some leadership in being more progressive on land-use issues."
With the new ordinance becoming law, the city will start work on a more detailed development agreement for the site, based on the outlines of the ordinance (unless an appeal is upheld). Ultimately, the development agreement will go before the council, then land on the mayor's desk.
Verner, reached Monday evening, said she'll continue to track the issue and make sure that promises are kept on both sides. She defended the decision not to exercise her veto power -- "I felt I would be setting the parties up to be more frustrated with one another" -- and said that if residents felt betrayed, they should look to the City Council.
"To direct it at me," she says, "would be misdirected."