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Fight for Your Rights 

by Joel Smith & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & here the Old Milwaukee railroad's tracks once ran is now a strip of grass and weeds. Running from the dead end of the Appleway couplet in the Valley all the way out to Liberty Lake, pinned between apartment buildings and massive shuttered big-box stores with their vast and empty parking lots, the path is littered with great hunks of concrete and Keystone Light cans, a plastic beer pitcher, some type of ancient rusted drilling machine.

Doesn't sound like much, but in the last month this has become the unlikely battleground for a fight between Spokane Valley and Spokane County. As of Tuesday, the city was considering taking the county to court over it.

Why? Because while both sides agree that the 11.5-mile-long strip is integral to the future of development in the Valley, they disagree on what that future should look like. Or when it should arrive.

Spokane Valley mayor Diana Wilhite says the right-of-way is crucial to an already planned $4.2 million project to extend Appleway Boulevard and the Sprague/Appleway couplet. In a letter sent to the board of county commissioners on Nov. 15, Wilhite says that the project, which could dramatically change the Valley corridor and would fit in with the city's plans to build an urban center, "could be adversely affected by your failure to immediately acknowledge the prior transfer of this roadway."

The letter concluded by giving the county until Dec. 6 to respond, otherwise "appropriate action" would be taken.

Wilhite sounds peeved. She says the county's stubbornness is hurting her city in both the short and long terms. "If the county plans to retain ownership of it, what do they plan to do with it?" she asks. "People are dumping on it, they've not cut the weeds. They found an old stove out there, a refrigerator -- just things people didn't want to take to the dump to get rid of. Couldn't we clean it up and use it as a walking trail or a bike trail or something? What good is it to them?"

But the real issue for the Valley is the extension of the couplet over the right-of-way. "We're doing a major study of the Sprague corridor -- that has to do with Appleway and the extension of Appleway," she says. "It's important for us to have the rest of the Appleway corridor included in our equation of how we're going to look at traffic patterns. We want that to be part of our solution, making sure we keep a good circulation pattern for our traffic."

Last week, the board of commissioners fired back with a letter stating that the right-of-way was never part of the package it gave to the city upon incorporation. Roads, yes. But not that. They maintain that the strip, which they bought from the Old Milwaukee railroad in 1980 (and which they still use today to run underground sewer lines) remains theirs.

County Commissioner Todd Mielke suggests the Spokane Valley is missing the point when they argue that the county's claim to ownership is getting in the way of the city's plans, saying that regardless of those plans, the right-of-way still belongs to the county. Plain and simple. "They incorporated," he says. "So these are the challenges you have. If you're going to do road projects, typically there's a cost in doing that."

Besides, he says, it's not about what the county is or isn't doing with the right-of-way today, but what it could do in the future. He stresses that the county is a regional government with an interest in connecting its communities. "[That's] one of the last continuous corridors that runs through an extensive part of the county. We want to make sure we don't chop it all up and that we preserve some of it for 20 years down the road. I would rather make the mistake of trying to look into the future and preserving something rather than being short-sighted."

That "something" could very well be light rail, or some other kind of high-speed transportation. The Old Milwaukee right-of-way is key to a proposed 15.5-mile-long train line that could run from Spokane to Liberty Lake. Wilhite says she doesn't believe the region has reached the population density at which light rail would pencil out, but she agrees that it's important to preserve the right-of-way for high-speed transit.

But Mielke points out that preserving the option for light rail or bus rapid transit would be nearly impossible if the Spokane Valley owns the right-of-way, stating that the city wants a 72-foot-wide swath of the strip for development. Where the strip runs some 100 feet wide, that would leave plenty of room for transit. But it's often only 50 to 55 feet wide, meaning the Valley would get the whole strip. Meaning they'd have to add room for transit.

"[And] if they're saying they don't have the money to buy pieces of it from us," says Mielke, "they certainly don't have the money to buy what would be lacking" [to make the continuous right-of-way]. "We would end up with a very disjointed section-by-section thing. There'd be right-of-way for a while, then it would stop, then there'd be another piece. [It would be broken up] and forever gone."

And it's not as if light rail proponents didn't have enough to worry about already. Last month, two advisory ballot measures polling the public's willingness to continue considering light rail -- and to authorize the light rail steering committee to begin purchasing necessary right-of-way for the project --both failed. On Thursday, Dec. 14, the Spokane Transit Authority board is scheduled to consider the election results and decide whether to move forward or to permanently disband the steering committee, which has spent six years and almost $9 million looking into light rail. The meeting begins at 5:30 pm at Spokane's City Hall.
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