by Robert Herold

Councilman Al French, who wants to be City Council President, is quoted as saying that Ms. Arpin has made her case. He was referring to Counselor Margaret Arpin, who represents the developer who wants to rezone some parcels up at the Nevada-Lyons intersection.

The only case Ms. Arpin has made, of course, is a case for business as usual.

The term is "spot-zoning," and the story of this kind of non-planning is as old as strip-mall development. Here's how it works: First, the community goes through a lengthy planning process. Then, following expressions of outrage by developers, who claim that they didn't have enough time to participate in the process, the plan is compromised before it's even adopted. Not satisfied, after the political dust settles, those spot-zoning applications begin to come in, which, when approved, serve to bring the community back to square one: business as usual. At this juncture, we see the appearance before the council of those legal eagles such as Ms. Arpin, who effectively make the age-old arguments about property rights, tax base and market demand. The council is left to say that the case has been made and then approve the spot zone. And so it goes, and likely will again when the vote is taken on this request.

If the council approves this request without at the same time rationalizing their decision so as to protect the policies contained within the Comprehensive Plan, they can write off growth management, along with those centers and corridors and all those "new urbanist" principles contained therein.

That said, in this instance (and no doubt others like it), Ms. Arpin makes a good point, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. She argues that this particular spot zone doesn't compromise the Comprehensive Plan because in the future, other developers who want to make changes will have to go through the exact same process that she has had to endure. But her argument regarding this particular property isn't all that unique. She argues merely that the negative effect of these changes will "be minor."

I'd rather see an argument made to the effect that the change is supportive of the principles in the Plan. Or, if not, then what principles need to be changed, and why. The council has an excellent opportunity here to flesh out what is a cobbled-together and premature Comprehensive Plan (as Mr. French likely knows, because he served on the Plan Commission at the time of the plan's adoption). In its adopted state, this plan is fair game for those like Ms. Arpin's client.

I say cobbled-together and premature. We need remind ourselves that the City of Spokane was under pressure from the state to adopt a Comprehensive Plan as required by the state Growth Management Act. After all, Spokane, at the time, was the only remaining city in the state not to have managed to adopt such a plan. Under threat of losing state grant funding, the Plan Commission proceeded in great haste, over a period of about eight months, to complete its deliberations. The truth is that the land-use map -- where the real ballgame would be played -- received the least amount of attention, perhaps only four to six weeks, including public testimony. Moreover, the map came without any analysis. Rather, the staff dropped it on the commission in a matter-of-fact way and stated that, given the principles adopted, the land-use map as presented was a logical fallout.

To the contrary, from the principles to the land-use map, the Plan Commission had produced a plan that reflected much deliberation, for certain, but deliberation based on anecdote and impression, not analysis. A better way of proceeding would have had the staff present their understanding of the land-use map, then subject that map to some serious analysis, which would consider costs, benefits, problems and existing claims. This wasn't done. Instead, the commission, and later the council, heard the complaints, did some horse-trading to quiet the strongest complainers and adopted the plan, just in the nick of time.

The story doesn't end there, however. At the time of adoption, the staff was given a specific timeframe to codify the plan. That codification still hasn't been completed, some two years behind schedule. Indeed, if you add into the mix some zoning decisions made during the earlier Neighborhood Specific Plan efforts, some legislative zoning decisions are now approaching 10 years and still awaiting codification.

So given the problems with the plan, let alone the delays in codification, the commission and staff protests against Ms. Arpin's request do sound, if not hollow, at least compromised. It now falls to the council to do its job: to engage Ms. Arpin's request at the level of principle, and then to ask that commission to reconsider based on the facts.

And as an aside, I suggest that this situation -- which if not handled well will become an avalanche of a mess -- can be offered as yet one more example of why the council-manager system had become so dysfunctional. Why was the Comprehensive Plan so delayed? Answer: In a council-manager form of government, we had zero political leadership that could affect such important actions of governance.

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Publication date: 08/21/03

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.