The Spokane County Commissioners are getting ready to put out the final edition of the highly anticipated comprehensive plan, which will guide growth for the unincorporated parts of Spokane County over the next 20 years.
The Board is expected to make an announcement late in the afternoon today as to whether it's ready to approve the plan or will need more time to finalize it.
When the city passed its comprehensive plan in May, the county already had a draft plan put together.
"The Board of Commissioners officially cut off public testimony on the plan on May 31. But at the public hearings on the plan this spring, we got about 300 oral statements," says Paul Jensen, senior planner for Spokane County. "And we have gotten close to 300 letters from people. Some of those letters had as many as 40 comments in one letter, and the board has to address every one of those separately."
That process took up most of July.
By now, so many changes have been made that some wonder if the final edition of the county comprehensive plan has to go through yet another public commentary period before it can be approved.
"Our sense is that if they are making substantial changes, they need new public hearings," says Esther Holmes, Spokane and Eastern Washington field coordinator for 1,000 Friends of Washington, a grassroots, pro-growth management group. "I'm not entirely sure that we have reached that point yet. Maybe the county planning staff will say that because of the number of changes, the county should require a new public hearing?" But Jensen doesn't want to guess the outcome of this week's meetings. "We're going to have to wait and see," he says.
Holmes, who has followed the comprehensive plan's development and revisions in great detail on behalf of 1,000 Friends, says many changes that she is aware of have been made in the plan's language.
"Pertaining to the management of critical areas -- those are often areas with wetlands on them -- there was a lot of old language that just never had been changed," says Holmes. "We did ask for those changes, in order to protect riparian areas. They had a lot of 'shoulds' in there, that should have been 'shalls,' and they changed that."
Some say that the commissioners have given in too much to last-minute pressure from developers and landowners who want to protect their ability to develop land without additional restraints, but Holmes doesn't think that's the case.
"I wouldn't go as far as to say that the plan has been watered down," says Holmes. "But it's hard to say as long as we haven't seen the final document."
The county's comprehensive plan follows the same pattern as the city's, promoting the establishment of urban corridors and mixed-use urban development centers.
It provides three residential land use categories, for high-, medium-, and low-density developments, as well as an urban growth area that is supposed to accommodate the county's needs for the next 20 years.
In connection with the definition of that urban growth area, however, there's a hurdle the commissioners need to clear: they must find a way of defining the county's growth area so it matches the city's desire for expansion.
"The proposal for annexation of county land by the city will be presented to the Board of Commissioners, but they are concerned it may be too large and too ambitious -- the city's urban growth area is a very big issue," says Jensen. "Some service providers are already pretty upset about it because in the areas the city would annex, the city would provide services." Existing fire and water districts are the service providers that are protesting the most.
"There would be some competition between the city and the utilities that are already there," says Jensen, because those districts stand to lose a significant chunk of their revenues if part of their service areas are handed over to the city.
Another question is whether the city can afford to extend services into large annexed areas, or would it be better off annexing a little at a time? Obviously property tax revenues are at stake in these negotiations, and that may tempt the city to seek as much land as possible in one annexation.
"It's getting to be very complicated," says Jensen, "but it's an issue that has to be solved before the county's comprehensive plan can be finalized."
Among the many other issues that received public comment is the arterial road plan for 40th Avenue in the Valley.
"That road doesn't go through, and it's not part of the arterial road plan right now, but it was to maybe be extended to relieve traffic in that area," says Jensen. "We got a lot of testimony on that because the neighborhood didn't like the idea at all. I doubt it will end up going through, but the frosting is not on the cake yet, so we don't really know."
A proposed commercial development project close to Hatch Road and the Pullman Highway got the same response from its future neighbors.
"There is some commercial development, with stores and hotels, that was planned there, and we got substantial testimony about that as well," says Jensen. "The neighborhood really didn't like that idea either."
Further out in the county, planners and county staff are working with farmers in Greenbluff to solve a longstanding conflict between those who wish to keep the area rural, and the farmers who put on festivals and sell their crops at shops located on the farms. When they begin selling pies, farmers are no longer just farmers but business owners, and their businesses are located in a designated rural area.
"We are trying to work out differences between the rural lifestyle and more festival-type things," says Jensen. Currently, farmers who wish to sell their crops out of barn shops have to apply and pay for an annual permit to do so.
"That way of doing things is under evaluation to see if we want to continue down that road," says Jensen.
The proposed comprehensive plan also supports a light rail system between downtown Spokane and Liberty Lake, with high-density residential and business areas along the way.
And it adds a new land designation -- "rural conservation areas" -- in an effort to reach a compromise between builders and environmentalists. Here, builders and developers would be allowed to cluster residences on smaller lots in a new development, if that means wetlands can be left undisturbed.
Another new designation -- "limited development areas" -- allow for limited expansion of existing businesses located, for instance, around the Mead Airport or the unincorporated parts of Liberty Lake.
Designated "rural activity centers" will also be created. In those areas, developments such as gas stations, pizza restaurants and video rental stores will be allowed, even when the surrounding area is designated rural. A good example of that type of development is the small community developing in Four Lakes.
Just as in the city, the county's comprehensive plan will change land-use designations in some areas. Following those changes, zoning of individual parcels may change, and that's where most people come face-to-face with the plan.
"Overall, there is more focus on the urban growth area boundary than there is on anything," says Spokane County Planning Director Michael Needham. "People want to know, 'Am I in, or am I out? And what does that mean?' "
A difference in zoning can make or break a new development, and many builders are getting impatient waiting for planners to complete the deal. However, regardless of the outcome of the re-zoning, property owners may appeal the zoning decisions or apply for special permits.
"I think we have a pretty good plan," says Holmes of the 1,000 Friends. "I certainly believe the county commissioners have done all they could to involve the public and utilize the public commentary process. In the end, any changes that they make should reflect the public's wishes."