by Pia K. Hansen

For the second time in a month, Spokane County is in trouble over the way in which it has developed its comprehensive plan. The Growth Management Hearings Board for Eastern Washington has ruled that the county is out of compliance with the Growth Management Act (GMA) in seven out of 15 complaints originally raised by the city of Spokane.

The county now has two weeks to explain how it will get back into compliance with the state law.

Two of the more controversial points addressed in this ruling are lack of public input in general and how the city's Urban Growth Area (UGA) was established.

Typically, a city's UGA consists of land immediately outside the city limits -- an area where the city plans to grow.

Last year, when the county adopted its comprehensive plan on Aug. 24, it determined that the city of Spokane's UGA was to follow the existing city limits, leaving the second largest city in the state without an opportunity to expand beyond its current boundaries.

"The city has said all along that the UGA was set without allowing proper time for public input," says John Mercer, the city of Spokane's planning director. "The city filed a petition with the Growth Management Hearings Board after the county's comprehensive plan was adopted. There were 15 issues on it, and that's what the ruling is on."

Planning for the UGA began back in 1995. In 1997, the county commissioners adopted an interim UGA.

"At that time, there was a UGA associated with the city of Spokane," says Mercer, who worked at the county before joining the city. "Before the final approval, the city had taken the original UGA, plus some land to the north and included that in the UGA the commissioners had presented to them."

The county commissioners have to approve the UGA, but they didn't like the city's plan.

"In their final decision, they said the city's UGA had to follow the city limits," says Mercer. "Not having a UGA makes planning for the future very difficult."

Smaller towns within Spokane County were granted UGAs outside of their existing city limits.

"The county commissioners adopted those UGAs knowing that some of the smaller jurisdictions had trouble providing services in those areas," says Mercer. "We were under much more scrutiny. We clearly documented that we could provide services in our UGA, yet we weren't granted one."

The final edition of the county's comprehensive plan included 17 pages of last-minute changes approved by the county commissioners. The commissioners maintain that they held plenty of hearings and went through hundreds of comments and letters prior to finalizing the plan. But the city -- and now also the Hearings Board -- say that wasn't enough.

This latest ruling is almost a duplicate of one that came down in early June. Two citizens' groups -- 1,000 Friends of Washington and the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane -- also held that the county commissioners did not allow for sufficient public comment before making 72 last-minute changes to the comprehensive plan. The Hearings Board went against the county in that case, too.

Two rulings against the county in a row -- it's beginning to look like there really was something wrong with the process,

"We don't know if we are going to appeal the latest ruling or not," says County Commissioner Kate McCaslin. "There's a chance that we'll roll this one up in the same hearing we are going to be having on the other one [the case filed by 1,000 Friends of Washington], but I'd rather not comment until I know for sure and until I've had a chance to read the new ruling."

Mercer says it's important to remember that the latest ruling didn't invalidate the city's UGA.

"The Hearings Board found fault with the way the county made decisions," says Mercer. "I don't think the UGA is going to change. What's there is there now. This should have no impact on how normal business is being conducted. Right now, we are just waiting to see what kind of a plan the county commissioners come back with."

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