Planning vs. Sprawl, Part II

Time to pay attention

Tuesday’s Spokesman article by Emry Dinman, “Development in the Latah Valley put on hold for a year as strained infrastructure examined,” is worth your attention both for the good of the people of the City of Spokane and for the political implications. The story of the development moratorium is worth examining—especially in light of the current work on updating the Comprehensive Plan. This is area of the moratorium (from Dinman’s article and the City of Spokane website):

The Grandview/Thorpe and Latah/Hangman Neighborhoods are worth a visit. You wouldn’t want to be trapped there in a fast moving wildfire pushed by a west wind, like the fire that burned part of Medical Lake and a significant piece of the West Plains last August. The landform of the Latah Creek valley itself constrains access and egress on the east side of both these neighborhoods. Both are dependent for east side access on the high-speed, four-lane U.S. Hwy. 195. Although governmentally part of the City of Spokane (as well as Spokane County, as we’ll see), the only connections of these neighborhoods to the city depend first on either U.S. 195 or U.S. Interstate 90. Once you’re on one of these thoroughfares the connections to the City of Spokane are limited by the terrain: either Hatch Road (on the southeast) or by wending one’s way on Thorpe Road across Vinegar Flats and up W 7th Avenue near I-90. Access from the west is limited (especially for Grandview/Thorpe) and subject to closure by fire. Indeed, residents of Grandview, during one of last summer’s fire scares were left to evacuate into a traffic jam in a maze of streets running down W 16th Ave onto U.S. 195. (Check it out on Googlemaps if you lack the time to explore. The “Terrain” option under “layers” in the lower left corner helps you see the constraining landforms of the Latch Creek valley. The flattest creek bottom east of 195 has been built up for a century. Much of the rest of the land east of 195 is not suitable for development,)

These access issues are so striking that they were pointed up by the Washington State Department of Transportation in a letter four years ago: 

WSDOT was so concerned about adding traffic to the interchange at 195 and Interstate 90 that they sent the city a letter in February 2020 warning that the state agency could be forced to limit local access points to 195 if the city didn’t build out other streets. In the letter, WSDOT Eastern Region Administrator Mike Gribner asked the city to halt any development near 195 until those improvements are made.

Given these very real concerns the City of Spokane City Council voted in September 2022 to impose a six month pause on building permits in the Latah Valley while they considered raising the fees builders and developers pay up front to connect to city services. Predictably, builders and their strong allies, Spokane County Commissioner Al French, and City Council Members Bingle and Cathcart, were vehemently opposed. (Mr. Cathcart, it should be noted, is the former government affairs director of the Spokane Home Builders Association.) In a video referenced below builder/developer Jim Frank of Greenstone Homes says, “Building moratoriums don’t solve problems, they just delay the inevitable.” 

The recent vote that passed the City Council’s new moratorium was 5-2 with Council members Jonathan Bingle and Michael Cathcart voting against (Note that both of them represent the other side of the City [Northeast]). According to an earlier Spokesman article, CM Cathcart “acknowledges that the area has severe infrastructure needs, [but] believes that an anti-growth or ‘not in my backyard’ mentality is also motivating supporters of the new moratorium.” Hogwash.

There is something very wrong with this picture, considering that, by Spokane County Commissioner Al French’s own notation (see below), several infrastructure projects in the 2001 Comp Plan that might have addressed these access issues never happened—and here we are, twenty-three years later.

This is not just a City of Spokane issue to be addressed only by the City of Spokane City Council. Spokane County Commissioner Al French is busy lobbying for more building in the Latah corridor. He appeared with developer Jim Frank in a half hour presentation on KSPS in April lobbying for additional development in these neighborhoods and proposing (somewhat dubiously, I think) to fund infrastructure improvements with “tax increment financing (TIF).” As I see it, TIF is a method of paying for the present lack of infrastructure by offering builders a subsidy, basically a mortgage based on expected future growth, to build more structures that, in turn, will require infrastructure themselves. This use of TIF looks like economic sleight-of-hand (at least in this particular setting)—but that’s a topic for another day. 

In the KSPS video with Mr. Frank, Mr. French notes that he lives in Latah/Hangman and that this is part of his county commissioner district. He says that the 2001 Comprehensive Land Use Plan contained a series of capital infrastructure projects that were identified and “haven’t happened over the years.” Of course, that begs the question, “Why?” Mr. French has been a Spokane County Commissioner since 2011 and before that served on the City of Spokane City Council. Where was he on these infrastructure issues all this time—and why is he now suddenly interested and out talking about them? If he succeeds in his re-election bid this fall, how long will it take for his interest to turn elsewhere?

Challenging Mr. French for his Commissioner seat is Molly Marshall. Molly has been tackling these issues for years through Citizen Action for Latah Valley, a group she and her husband founded. It is time give Molly Marshall, a local resident with a real stake and broad knowledge of the issues in these neighborhoods and on the West Plains, a seat on the County Commission. Let’s give the folks in this district a voice that speaks to their concerns even when it is not election season. 

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. Here’s some perspective on the issue of how far we are behind on the issue of infrastructure in the Latah Valley: Mr. Frank, in the video [at around 6:00] says, “The infrastructure needs in Latah Valley with just roads and sewer and water are very significant. They’re in the range of 200 to 250 million dollars.” That’s a quarter billion dollars, billion with a “b”. For perspective, the entire 2024 expenditure budget for the City of Spokane [pdf page 16] is 1.3 billion. A quarter billion is one fifth of the entire 2024 City budget. The Grandview/Thorpe and Latah/Hangman neighborhoods are just two of twenty-nine City of Spokane official neighborhoods. How on earth did we get a quarter of a billion dollars worth of infrastructure behind in just these two neighborhoods?