Spokane County planners this spring have taken the unusual step of asking people to share their visions of how to handle growth and land use before even having a draft proposal written up for comment.
It's a sort of pre-preplanning as the county begins a scheduled five-year update of the comprehensive land-use plan, due by the end of 2006.
The invitation is interesting because county commissioners recently offered back-door approval to two large developments that had been turned down in more public processes. And the county was challenged a few years ago for making 70 changes to planning documents without public notice.
The deadline is June 30 for the pre-comments (which are known as "input" in plannerese, a language that resembles English).
There are concerns that the county will, for the fourth straight year, expand its urban growth area, opening more land for development whether services can be provided or not instead of adhering to the spirit of the state's Growth Management Act.
The Growth Management Act of 1993 wasn't formally incorporated into Spokane County planning protocols until 2001. The GMA is an attempt to control mindless sprawl by concentrating development within urban growth areas.
"There is no universal rule," when it comes to counties following the Growth Management Act, says Tim Trohimovich, planning director for Futurewise, a Seattle-based public interest group that tracks growth and development issues around the state.
"The GMA says you should look at your urban growth areas once every 10 years. It also says you can't amend your comprehensive plan more than once a year.
"Having said that, I think there is a trend to not adjust urban growth areas every year," Trohimovich says. "King County analyzes its urban growth area, but has not expanded it for long time."
Dee Caputo, a regional planner for CTED, the state Community Trade and Economic Development agency, says the state's most populous counties seem to be taking a strict approach to controlling sprawl. In their most recent swing through the process, Caputo says neither King nor Pierce counties proposed adjustments to urban growth areas. Whatcom County, she says, "Is taking a densification approach with aggressive infill efforts."
Clark County, near Vancouver, Caputo says, "originally planned an extensive adjustment to their urban growth area, but when they looked at their capital facilities plan, to see if they could pay for it, they scaled it way back."
Can you pay for it? This is one of the key considerations in the Growth Management Act. Counties, or cities, seeking to expand urban growth areas are required to consider the cost of sewer and water services as well as road congestion, police and fire protection and schools and libraries.
These considerations are why large development proposals around Saltese Flats in the Valley (400 acres) and at Five-Mile (200 acres) were denied by the planning commission and county commissioners in 2003.
Developers appealed to a state growth management hearing board, only to have former County Commissioner John Roskelley, an advocate of responsible growth who was with the county when the proposals were denied, appointed by Gary Locke to the appeals board after his term as Spokane County Commissioner expired.
The appeals were withdrawn and developers approached the new, all-Republican county commissioners, who this month gave the green light to both projects in a mediated settlement that did not invite public comment.
"I'm not sure why the county can do this," says Lindell Haggin of the county planning commission, which originally recommended the two developments be denied because of storm water, sewage and access issues.
Trohimovich, the planner for Futurewise, challenged Spokane County for making furtive changes to planning in 2002.
Of annual expansion to growth boundaries, he says: "I think it's the wrong approach. When you expand urban growth areas, you are not just adding land, but you are committing to water and sewer and police and fire and parks.
"If you respond to just what walks through the door, you are not asking where does it make sense to expand services and where can we add more development without burdening schools?
"The job of the planning commission and the county commissioners is to look out for the larger community," Trohimovich says.
This makes the call for pre-comments on planning even more valuable. So far, comments have largely come from people with an interest in expanding the urban growth areas: property owners who wish to have their land included, and builders.
"All I hear, and I am hearing this secondhand," County Commissioner Todd Mielke says, "is where an average lot may have cost a builder $20,000 three or four years ago, it is now costing $40,000 or $50,000."
Affordable housing, he notes, is yet another consideration of the Growth Management Act.
"Developers come in and say it's getting too expensive ... we need to expand the urban growth boundaries so we can keep housing affordable," Haggin says. "Well, you know what sort of housing they build out there. I keep asking how much is set aside for affordable housing, and they never answer."
Comments on planning and growth for the next five years can be mailed to the Spokane County Building and Planning Department, 1026 W. Broadway Ave., 99260, or by e-mail from the department Web site, spokanecounty.org/bp. Click on the "Important news" window, or just go to the "Contact us" line. Deadline is June 30.