Lax Management?

by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & f the state's Growth Management watchdogs had any teeth, here's what would happen: Spokane County Commissioners would be strapped into uncomfortable chairs and forced into a marathon round of Sim City -- no more $200-a-plate fundraisers for you, mister, until everything's in place to fund and support new development.

But we don't hear those cries of anguish coming from the county courthouse.

In February, the commissioners were upbraided two times by a state appeals board for disregarding provisions of the Growth Management Act. The GMA essentially asks government to restrain high-density development inside "urban growth boundaries" to control sprawl.

Like someone having trouble kicking cigarettes, the Spokane County Commissioners have been unable to hold firm on growth boundaries.

"There are consequences to this. They can't blow off the law," says Rick Eichstaedt, attorney with the Center for Justice, which has agreed to represent opponents of the growth expansions.

In both cases that were overturned last month, the commissioners had bumped out the growth boundaries without verifying two things: that the land was needed for development, and that governments could pay for the services -- sewer, water, storm water drainage, roads, cops, fire, schools, parks -- that come with development.

Both are core requirements of the Growth Management Act that have consistently been ignored by the county commissioners, Eichstaedt and others charge. "They can be sanctioned by the Governor's office and lose economic development monies," says Eichstaedt.

One case last month was egregious. Calling for expanding urban-density development for 80 acres of the Palisades area (west of Spokane, off of Sunset Highway), it was opposed by a number of neighborhood and business groups.

In response, the state hearing board wrote the following: "Enlargement of its UGA [urban growth area] requires more than an attractive proposal from a developer."

That's rare, blunt language from a government entity.

The sentence is also a nutshell summary for critics who feel that current commissioners -- Phil Harris, Todd Mielke and Mark Richard -- are all industry-friendly Republicans who will ignore the law in order to accommodate developers.

The second ruling -- involving 229 acres on Five Mile Prairie -- is a tangled case in point. The state appeals board didn't just send the project back for a do-over, but issued a finding of invalidation, essentially saying that the commissioners broke the law.

Also a rare, blunt move.

Defining "Management" & r & But it's a reprimand that seems to be taken in stride at the courthouse.

"With regards to Five Mile, I don't feel we got our knuckles rapped," Richard says.

Instead, Richard notes former Spokane County Commissioner John Roskelley is now on the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearing Board and should not have been involved in the hearing just on appearance of fairness grounds.

Roskelley was on the county commission that denied the Five-Mile proposals when they first came around in 2004. He can hardly be fair about it, Richard argues, and thus the appeals board rulings are on thin ice.

Critics, however, say the shoe of hypocrisy is on the other foot.

Developers in Five-Mile appealed the 2004 denial to the state hearing board. But then the results of the 2004 election had Richard, previously director of the Home Builders Association, and Mielke winning seats on the county commission, while the green-leaning Roskelley headed for appointment to the state appeals board. And then, critics say, a funny thing happened.

Developers pulled their appeal away from the state board and sent it back to the county, where the new commissioners -- without public hearings or involving the Plan Commission or the Steering Committee of Elected Officials -- reversed the old board and approved the expansion of growth boundaries last June.

What's more, Five-Mile resident and watchdog Kathy Miotke says, "They didn't sign the resolution until July 16."

Opponents couldn't appeal until the resolution was officially signed, Miotke says, charging that the commissioners' inaction gave developers a five-week head start to get their projects "vested" -- that is, protected from challenge under a lax planning process. Five of the six properties affected by last month's actions are already vested.

The county commissioners have indicated they will appeal the Palisades reversal in Superior Court and are likely to appeal the Five-Mile ruling as well.

"I'm not saying I'm so hard and fast and right-wing that I'll say the hell with the Growth Management Act," Richard says, "but I see a lot of hypocrisy in the act."

Richard says growth boundaries to force denser in-fill development limit the choices of people who want suburban housing on larger lots, impedes the ability of people to subdivide land as a retirement option and drives up land prices to threaten affordable housing.

Critics say opposition to growth management has more to do with what's affordable for the majority of developers, who make most of their money on suburban tract housing developments that require 50- or 80- or 200-acre parcels.

"In-fill development is a niche business where people who are good at it do it well," says Don Barbieri -- a developer, albeit a left-leaning one. "People set up for large tract home annexes are a different type of developer. I'm not saying subdivisions are wrong, but Growth Management is about striking a balance between open space and density."

Richard agrees on the concept of balance. "I think there is some great stuff on in-fill and downtown redevelopment. If it's attractive, people will choose it. We should not take away all other choices," he says.

And he criticizes the state appeals board for saying the county didn't perform land-quantity analyses and for finding that some of the proposals were "islands" not connected to existing urban growth areas.

In both cases, Richard says, "There is nothing in Growth Management that says you need to do that."

But Eichstaedt, at the Center for Justice, couldn't disagree more. He has taken the county's Superior Court appeal one step further.

"We have sought a direct review from the state court of appeals," he says. "These issues come up over and over again, that the county commissioners don't necessarily agree that they have to follow the [GMA] requirements." Showing a pattern may help the higher court step in "so the law is clear," Eichstaedt says.

There is an appearance that the current county commissioners feel they are untouchable when it comes to growth management decisions. Even the commissioners' critics admit this has some basis in reality.

"Like it or not, the county has ultimate say in overall comprehensive planning," Richard says, somewhat apologetically.

Time for Reform? & r & All this has some wondering if it's time to revisit the Freeholder idea of a decade ago for expanded county government -- either a bigger commission, with more members, or some sort of combined metro government that includes cities.

Former County Commissioner Roskelley says no. Roskelley is the rare Democrat to win county elections in recent years and, given his generally green views, made developers hiss and spit like vampires facing a crucifix until they drafted Richard to run.

It would be too expensive to add staff for two or four new commissioners, Roskelley says. Incorporation of the cities of Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake has shrunk the land under county control and means that "there isn't much work to do," Roskelley says. In addition, he predicts votes would still come down to 4-3 or 3-2 splits instead of the 2-1 often seen on a three-member board.

Barbieri thinks that's being shortsighted. Decisions may well come down to a one-vote margin, he says, but more board members means "you have more of a representative mix. If there is an issue that needs to be debated -- whether it ends up as a 4-3 or 3-2 vote -- the issue gets up there, there is public discussion and there is some transparency."

A three-member commission just doesn't include many points of view, he says.

"I am bothered by the fact that we have county commissioners who appear to be driven too strongly by the development community," Barbieri says. "You just have to look at it and it doesn't pass the sniffer test when you see the former lobbyist for the Home Builders Association taking our growth management wisdom away from us and allowing sprawl to happen.

"Lately it seems like there's been less openness," says Bonnie Mager of the Spokane Neighborhood Alliance, who may challenge Phil Harris in the fall election. She cites forced turnover on volunteer panels such as the Plan Commission, closed meetings and fewer public -- or publicly broadcast -- meetings.

"The [Tuesday] afternoon meeting used to be like a City Council briefing session," Mager says. Now there is a pre-meeting, she says, and "If you don't go to the [earlier] session they come out and say, 'I move we approve items one through 17. All in favor say aye.' They are out of there in two minutes because they've already talked things over in the briefing session," Mager says.

"The Neighborhood Alliance has an open government petition we are circulating, asking [the commissioners] to do what's right and televise the briefing session like the City Council does," she says.