"They aren't particularly impressive," says David Boose, a vernal pool botanist at Gonzaga University. "They are not big. They are ephemeral. So the initial impression seems to be: It's a wet spot, so what?"
As the pools disappear, more people want to know what is being lost. Across the nation, there are efforts to understand the workings of vernal pools -- as well as the life they support -- and save what's left.
It's a tough sell.
In an era when the wild world bumps ever closer against human activities, even salmon, grizzly bears, wolves -- seen as majestic and even totemic creatures -- are in a fight to keep a spot in the world.
"Imagine trying to save a fairy shrimp, or a little, spiky annual plant," Boose says. "Most of the organisms in vernal pools are not charismatic."
The federal Environmental Protection Agency writes on its Web site: "Vernal pools are a valuable and increasingly threatened ecosystem, often smaller than the bulldozer that threatens to destroy them."
The Right To Develop & r & Such a bulldozer is parked just off the southeastern edge of the Spokane city limits, where 29th Avenue transforms from an arrow-straight city arterial into a twisty two-lane road that loops across a marshy draw separating the Lincoln Heights neighborhood from the Glenrose Prairie.
It's a surprisingly sudden -- and often surprisingly pretty -- transition from city to country. And it's an illusion.
This isn't just open land with water that sparkles in vernal pools during late winter and spring, filled with odd, tiny crustaceans, birds, snakes and salamanders. This is privately owned open land with water that sparkles in vernal pools during late winter and spring, filled with odd, tiny crustaceans, birds, snakes and salamanders.
"This is a very strong property-rights state, and the basic tenet is you should be able to do with your property whatever you want to do -- as long as it's consistent with regulations in place," says county hearing examiner Mike Dempsey, a kind of land-use judge.
Five years ago, developer Lancze Douglass purchased 52 acres just across Havana Street from the city limits and straddling that pleasant twisty portion of 29th. It was land already zoned for two different categories of "urban residential" by the county.
Douglass has proposed the South Ridge PUD (planned-unit development) to create 161 homes and 99 apartment units on the site.
The PUD designation allows a developer to place houses closer together in order to create common open areas. In this case, Douglass has included the vernal pools as open space. They are to remain undisturbed even during grading and construction.
Where some residents decry a densely packed development -- with roughly seven dwellings per acre -- in a country setting, county planners see the South Ridge proposal a logical extension of urban density just across the street from the city.
As detailed in the other story in this package, residents in the area quickly objected -- citing traffic, water and wetland issues -- and began a stubborn fight that is now headed to the state court of appeals after recent losses before the three Spokane County Commissioners and in Superior Court.
Neighborhood groups opposing development, outsiders in an insider-weighted process, are the Rodney Dangerfields of land-use planning.
"It's very emotional for them. It's their back yard," says Douglass, one of the county's busiest developers.
While he understands the anger, Douglass says he bristles to be portrayed -- both personally and by profession -- as "greedy and raping the land."
He adds: "People need to understand if an adjacent property is a large undeveloped tract and is privately owned, it will be developed some day unless they go and buy it to keep it as their private park."
Open tracts, such as the one at 29th and Havana, are often used for years as places to walk the dog, ride a bike or a four-wheeler.
"We don't get any kudos from neighbors for all that, but as soon as we go to develop it, they get mad because they're losing their dog-walking place or where their kid builds a fort," Douglass says. "Their fight is not with me. Their fight goes back to 10 years ago when they should see what the property is zoned for and what an owner is allowed to do."
Uncommon Ground & r & But looking into all this in advance is rare, and land-use disputes tend to flare up suddenly and yank the average person into an arcane world with a technical language that seems to make reality less clear the more precise the terminology becomes.
"I'm not really a land-use attorney. But I've been learning," says Richard Wall, a lawyer, a Lincoln Heights resident and one of the cofounders of CeRED, the neighborhood group that has organized to fight South Ridge.
Wall, like every citizen who jumps into a land-use dispute, has faced a steep learning curve and has to battle a growing sense of cynicism as well as the county planning process.
"The first thing you learn about land use is everything is very heavily skewed in favor of development going forward," Wall says. "It is the mindset of people in government, and it's built into to the law to some extent. Opponents are treated almost with disdain."
The official record on South Ridge -- including all the reports and testimony -- is a fat 1,300 pages. In his report after the preliminary plat hearing, Dempsey noted 258 "findings of fact" and approved the project only if developers met a phenomenal 102 conditions -- if not a county record, certainly way over the high side of normal. CeRED members point to the number of conditions as proof South Ridge is a bad development.
Dempsey disagrees, and so does County Commissioner Mark Richard. The high page count and number of conditions are a result of at least three sides -- the developer, the opponents and the city of Spokane -- each tugging at different priorities, and the first two parties each hiring their own experts and consultants.
"It's a complicated proposal," says Dempsey.
Even though the commissioners, on an appeal by Douglass' agent Cliff Cameron, deleted five major conditions and modified another, Richard points to the number of conditions as proof that the system works to protect the public.
"The commissioners looked at the record very closely," Richards says. "There are a few in the neighborhood who want to call us crooks and say we are in the pockets of developers. And here you have [Judge Sam Cozza] making a [Jan. 26] decision affirming the decision of the county commissioners. Does the neighborhood now feel judges are in the pockets of developers?"
The short answer, judging by CeRED comments, would be yes.
So far, there has been little common ground.
CeRED members state the high density will overburden the narrow, twisty 29th with cars and cite potential injury or death to schoolchildren.
The official record shows Douglass is required to widen 29th into a three-lane arterial and install sidewalks on either side.
Douglass himself says, "I don't want a project that is unsafe." Even limiting his safety concerns to financial interest, he says, "I don't want to build a house I can't sell because people are crashing in front of it."
The city, which will get most of the traffic generated by South Ridge while collecting none of the property taxes, objected to the development's projected impacts on nearby intersections.
City traffic planners objected to a consultant's report submitted by Douglass that gauged traffic increases based on a 1 percent annual growth instead of what city engineers say is a more typical 2 percent rate. The city also objected to an estimate that 35 percent of South Ridge residents would use the Thor-Freya couplet instead of clogging other downhill arterials leading off of 29th. (At the hearing, according to documents, the consultant admitted the 35 percent figure came, basically, out of thin air.)
After several go-rounds on the number-crunching (and even a city traffic engineer says "an intersection can be failing on paper but not in real life"), the question of traffic increase will be revisited in several years as the project builds out.
This wait-for-the-disaster-to-materialize-before-acting approach has Wall, the attorney climbing the learning curve, seeing a planning system fractured by market-driven forces.
No government agency does a traffic study, he says. The developer is required to hire a consultant and, in a town the size of Spokane, "the whole process is skewed to do a study that reaches a known result."
A typical study would show the project created a failing level of service at 29th and Freya, so traffic growth was computed at one percent instead of two. The numbers were still high, so the 35 percent diversion suddenly appears, he says.
And when Dempsey made a condition for another study using better numbers, he was overruled by the county commissioners.
Wall grows wearier when he notes the county commissioners -- and later Superior Court Judge Sam Cozza -- also ignored the existence of fairy shrimp or other possibly endangered species from the vernal pools, accepting a report from a consultant who visited the pools in August when they were dry.
Again, Wall contends a small-city market economy drives the results. "If this is what you do for a living, you don't want to give developers bad news. And that is why the system is broken," he says.
He says it would be more fair if the county staffers did the studies and not consultants.
Richard says he is willing to explore the concept but notes if critics think commissioners are in developers' pockets, they would soon criticize staffers for doing only what commissioners tell them.
"I think we've got to get to trust first," Richard says.
Could the existence of fairy shrimp stop a project? Yes, if it's on the federal list as an endangered species -- as is one species of fairy shrimp in the West. That species, however, is only listed as being found in California and southern Oregon.
Go to a vernal pool in August and you won't see any fairy shrimp, Wall contends, and you get your report accepted "into the record."
The county commissioners, as well as Judge Cozza cite the lack of any credible scientific proof of fairy shrimp "in the record" as they made their decisions in favor of South Ridge.
Blowin' In The Wind & r & Even CeRED's wetland experts -- the botanist Boose and his Gonzaga colleague Hugh Lefcort, an aquatic biologist -- say that Douglass' consultant (EWU's Michael Folsom) can get an accurate bead on vernal pools by going in August and note his report was accepted by the state Department of Ecology without question.
But, they say, even though Folsom's report mentions no fairy shrimp, the weird little crustaceans are out there.
It's like anything else, Boose says, "Like most things in nature, the closer you look at vernal pools, the more you see."
Lefcort adds: "Brine shrimp have been found all over the West. They are pretty common." Some populations stick to one place, others stick to the feet of migrating waterfowl and move about.
Here is the coolest thing about fairy shrimp: When they are dormant in their little crustacean shells, they can be picked up by the winds, "And they can be blown around the world. They can wind up 10,000 miles away," Lefcort says.
They can come out of nowhere, just like a development proposal on that open tract of land next door.
The future of vernal pools and fairy shrimp may very well depend on which way the winds blow -- political and otherwise.