It's hard to deny the beauty of the area. Several golf courses stretch their lazy, manicured fairways in between well-planned, newly built neighborhoods. Spacious homes -- some with hefty pricetags -- line the new streets. The park here is just one centerpiece in a community where the kids head home from a less than three-year-old school. The other centerpiece is the lake itself -- Liberty Lake -- which glitters in the background, surrounded by more beautiful homes and dotted with boaters on any day with good wind and smooth sailing. As if all of this isn't enough to make any urban planner salivate, a handful of the nation's most attractive high-tech businesses, such as Agilent Technologies, have conveniently settled by the nearby freeway exit. And the small community is pushing to be one of the first stops on the new proposed light rail line.
This is Liberty Lake, a sweet little town nestled in low rolling hills, 17 miles east of Spokane and just two miles from the Idaho state line, completely hidden and yet just a stone's throw off the freeway. For the last two years, a group of Liberty Lakers have worked hard to incorporate the city, and during the recent election, they saw voters approve the idea, with 818 votes for and only 445 against.
"At the general election, 64.7 percent voted for incorporation. We consider that pretty much a landslide," says Wendy Van Orman, spokesperson for the Liberty Lake 2000 committee. "I think people felt the same thing -- we were lacking a voice, and now, by incorporating, we have one, especially with land use issues."
During a casual drive through the area, it doesn't seem like big land-use issues are facing this well planned community, but the surface betrays reality. Liberty Lake is one of the most attractive communities in Spokane County, and it is booming. In the early-1980s, about 1,300 people lived here, whereas today 3,265 share the 99019 zip code. It's predicted that as many as 10,000 may be living in Liberty Lake 10 years from now.
"We are focused on getting the services we need out here and to pay attention to the land use plans," says Van Orman, who's lived in Spokane all her life and by the lake for the last six years. "We are growing at such a rapid pace, we need to be really careful what's developed and where. Yes, we have a brand new school, it's going on its third year, but it's already at capacity. We need to deal with things like that."
The intention to incorporate Liberty Lake was originally driven by some major developers from the area, including Jim Frank, the president of Greenstone Corporation, which built Meadow Wood, Liberty Lake's central planned development. Municipalities have more flexibility in implementing the Growth Management Act, and some felt that as an independent city, Liberty Lake could look out for its interests better than Spokane County planners.
But the road to incorporation wasn't smooth. When the first public meetings were held last year, the waves went high as some of the residents were dead set against incorporation. One of the more outspoken opponents was Tom Agnew, president of Agnew Consulting and a Liberty Lake resident.
"It's true, some of us were very upset. But it seemed like Frank did everything right. He paid for the studies, and he kept the group [Liberty Lake 2000 Committee] alive. What was originally a study group, then became an activist group," says Agnew. "At the meetings, people were concerned about where the urban growth boundaries were going to be drawn. Generally, the people in the rural areas didn't want an urban growth area there. But the ones on the inside of the city wanted to develop a city, so yes, it was pretty controversial."
But Agnew, who lives outside of the area that will initially be incorporated, is ready to put the animosity behind.
"What happened back then is water under the bridge now," he says, though he's still not convinced incorporation will solve all of Liberty Lake's problems. "Eventually, as best as I can ascertain, cities always end up costing their residents more but always seem to have a paper case saying they will cost less. But I don't want to speculate about the future, I just hope it works out."
Liberty Lake has been a defined community since the late-1800s and held a place in post-Columbus American history since 1858. That's the year when Colonel George Wright fought a bloody Indian battle just a few miles from what's now the city's center. At least 800 Indian horses were slaughtered at the end of the battle, a common practice employed by a U.S. Army that was doing whatever it took to subjugate the local native Americans. Wright named the lake after another famous military figure, Major Grier. Years later, after the Civil War ended, the lake area was officially settled by white immigrants, who named the lake after Stephen E. Liberty, who carried mail over the Mullan Pass and served as a guide in the area.
Liberty Lake had its first real development boom in the early-1900s, when Spokane Inland Empire Railway cars took Spokane residents to concerts and dances in the Liberty Lake Park Pavilion. There was a bathhouse on the lake, and it's estimated by a study conducted by Spokane County that by 1913 as many as 9,000 Spokanites took the train to the lake on the hottest summer days.
Today, the park is still here and a new outdoor concert stage has gone up. There are, however, no more free public beaches. A county run park charges $4 for access to the sandy lakeshores, and a public boat launch is still available, but otherwise older homes sit shoulder to shoulder around the lake.
"No, there is no public beach left. Maybe one of the landowners that's not around a whole lot would sell some property to the city so we could open up a beach," says Van Orman. "That would be a great thing for the community, as would a lot of other improved recreational facilities." But for now Orman and the incorporation supporters are set on structuring and then electing the city's new administration -- and they are not hurting for volunteers.
"I'm definitely not in this alone. There are so many people involved that if we get any more, it's almost like it will divert from the project at hand," she says with a laugh. "It can be hard to manage things when you get hundreds of people together -- to keep them focused."
So how exactly does one go about constructing a new city?
"The stepping stone is to look for anyone interested in being a leader in the community," says Orman. "We need a mayor and seven council people. They can file by early December, and we'll have the primary on February 6, 2001, followed by the election on March 13."
It's too early to comment on any policy developments, and Orman declines to elaborate on how the new city will work with Spokane County government.
As of now, no one has announced a campaign for mayor or council. Maybe some of the large high tech businesses will support candidates as a way of having a say in eventual new business taxes the city may want to levy, but so far there is no indication of that either.
Once elected, the council and mayor will preside over the area North of Sprague and all the way to the Spokane River on the north side of I-90. To the east, the city's border is defined by Simpson Road and continues south around the outside of the Meadow Wood Golf Course, down to Sprague. To the west, Liberty Lake reaches all the way to Greenacres, bordered to the south by First Avenue and to the west by Henry Road and the freeway.
The last few blocks between Sprague and the lake are not included, but Orman says residents there may choose annexation in a few years. Many residents in the lakefront area were opposed to incorporation when the proposal first came up. Most of the lakefront is still designated rural, putting an effective stopper for multi-family developments and other urban dwellings.
Altogether, the new city of Liberty Lake takes a nice chunk out of Spokane County, and it's a costly one to boot. The large homes -- some occupied by executives and other employees from the nearby high tech industries or professionals who don't mind the fast freeway commute from downtown -- and the many businesses located there provide a solid tax base. But the county, so far, is not worried about any economic backlash from the incorporation.
"Any economic impact is not significant because Liberty Lake will contract all the services it needs to the county," says Susan Winchell of the county's Boundary Review Board. "As for this year, the revenue generated in the area is $1,674,691. The proposed city contracts are estimated at $850,000 to $1 million, so you subtract that, and it's about $800,000 to $600,000 the county is going to be losing. That is like 1 percent or less of the total county budget."
But much of the growth in the county has come in the Liberty Lake area, so future growth in the county's tax base could be hindered by the new city. In Liberty Lake, however, there are many plans as to how the tax money may be spent locally.
"Before we went ahead with the incorporation proposal, we surveyed people out here," says Orman. "We sent out 1,800 surveys, and 550 came back. Out of those, there were a few predominant things people felt were wrong with the community."
Besides land use issues, respondents wanted better snow removal and transportation planning. People were also concerned about the lack of policing in the area. The lack of medical and dental services was also a big issue, as was library services. After the poll was completed, an economic study was conducted by a private consulting firm.
"Basically, we looked into are we feasible, and we looked at the revenue part. We wanted to find out if Liberty Lake could hold its own," says Orman. "The study came back saying we could."
As the new government begins to take shape, only time will tell if incorporation allows Liberty Lake to resolve these issues.
Starting from scratch, the council and the mayor -- once elected -- are going to have to rent a space to call home.
"Getting an actual city hall is not a real big priority right now. There are plenty of spaces we can rent, and we have the money to do so," says Orman. "We are so excited. This is a time to roll up your shirtsleeves and get to work. We are close-knit community, and we want to keep it that way."