Slippery Slope

by MICK LLOYD-OWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Spokane City Council may decide next Monday whether to affirm or reverse the city hearing examiner's approval of a 100-unit condominium development on a South Hill hillside.

Residents of the Quail Ridge community, who live on top of the hill overlooking the proposed site near Hatch Road and 57th Avenue, are concerned about the stability of the hillside beneath their homes; they appealed the planned unit development approval before the City Council last Thursday.

The proposed project -- Tuscan Ridge -- would be built on a steeply sloped 23-acre parcel owned by developer Yong Lewis. The appellants, represented by attorney Stan Schwartz, were given 30 minutes at last week's meeting to prove a procedural error in Hearing Examiner Greg Smith's decision-making process or that new evidence had surfaced that required consideration.

"Think about standing on a 50-degree slope," Schwartz argued before the Council. "That's the average slope of this site," he says, citing from a technical report that "the site contains unstable soil 'unsuitable to support structures.'"

Quail Ridge resident John Lynch also addressed the council, claiming that 50 years of experience working with geo-engineers as a paving contractor informed his opinion about slope stability. "In my opinion, the proposed site is located on the most dangerous ground in Spokane County," he says. "This hillside is basically a sandbox held up by trees and clay. ... Mother Nature cannot be ignored." As if on cue, his wife Chris Lynch uncovered a large photo of a house perched on the edge of a sheer cliff where a hillside had collapsed at the nearby Highland Park development in 1999 during an attempt to shore up an embankment along Latah Creek.

"Did the hearing examiner see this picture?" demanded Council President Joe Shogan. Nobody could answer conclusively, and Shogan disallowed the photograph from consideration. Schwartz also argued that the approval should have been contingent upon the developer posting a large bond and a further environmental impact study.

Attorney Mike Murphy, representing an absent Yong Lewis, argued that the appellants were rehashing arguments raised at prior hearings and that the examiner "did an excellent job of parsing through the evidence and reaching a conclusion." He accused the appellants of selectively reading a particular report to cast doubt on the viability of the project, and dismissed the request of a bond and further EIS as deliberate "doorstoppers." He said the codes anticipate and may require further geotechnical study and safeguarding layers of approval for specific plans before permits are issued.

"When you do it right, you actually stabilize these hillsides," Murphy said. "This is not Highland Park. ... The analogy is completely flawed."

Councilmembers said they would announce their decision on the appeal at their meeting next Monday or on Dec. 17.