Report on the Public Hearing, May 2, 2019 re the Proposal to Develop Prime Farmland into Housing on Ecologically Sensitive Land in Spokane

Author(s): 
Chrys Ostrander

Photo of Public Hearing May 2 2019 Spokane WAOn the morning of May 2nd, the citizens of Spokane had the opportunity to influence the process of deciding the fate of some of the last official farmland remaining with the city limits. It was a public hearing in the Spokane City Council Chambers before the Hearing Examiner to determine the fate of 48 acres, most of which the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service classifies as "prime farmland." As the Hearing Examiner, Brian McGinn, said at the outset, there was a "full slate of folks who want to testify." McGinn has 10 days to make a decision.

First, Tami Palmquist of the planning department gave a report of their findings that was largely a review of the Staff Report published on April 23. The Staff Report recommended approval of the developer's application subject to numerous conditions that are set out in the report.

Next, the developer, Taudd Hume, testified on behalf of JRP Land LLC, the owner, in support of the proposal. During Mr. Hume's testimony, he made several things clear:

1) The owner strongly opposes any condition that would require that the general public have free access to the public lands (High Drive Bluff Park) that lie to the East of the proposed development, which are a favorite of hikers and nature-lovers. The beauty and integrity of the Bluff is fiercely defended by an organization called Friends of the Bluff (FOB). That's the organization that brought into Spokane's public consciousness how devastating it was when a contractor with bulldozers illegally cut a road along the Bluff. Friends of the Bluff stepped in and successfully advocated for a swift and thorough land reclamation project to repair the damage. The owner at the time paid a heavy price for the crime, with the City purchasing 50 acres of their land as part of a legal settlement in 2017 and the city's green belt got 50-acres bigger. With reference to the issue at hand at the hearing yesterday, Friends of the Bluff were also very effective in getting word out to their members and the general  public that this proposed development was being considered. They wanted their supporters, and anyone else listening, to know that they would oppose approval of the application if the permits did not include a condition requiring access by the general public from the West side of the property through the parcel to the Bluff which lies to the East. There was quite a lot of legal back and forth on this issue during the hearing and various local, state and federal court decisions cited as to whether the City, acceding to the Friends of the Bluff's clear preference, would have the legal authority to force public access. Mr. Hume said his interpretation is that the only time the City can require public access is if public access existed before a development goes in and since no public access had been in place nor is there now, it would be an unconstitutional 'taking' for the city to do so. He said that the 'public' would have access to the Bluff as long as they were either residents of the gated community or guests of residents.

2) It's the developer's view that it is the legal obligation of the city, at tax-payers' expense, to put back in working order an old City sewer line that had been put in years ago for a mobile home park that has since disappeared. Apparently, when the new interchange on Rt. 195 at the Cheney-Spokane Rd. exit was constructed, the manhole at end of the old sewer line was dug up, the pipe back-filled with concrete and buried.

3) The developer objects to some conditions on approval set out in the staff recommendation that were submitted by the Spokane Tribe regarding the protection of archeological resources that likely exist on the property (there have been finds in areas in close proximity to the parcel in question). The Tribe expressed concern about the probable presence of archeological sites that would be disturbed by construction activities and set as two of their conditions

a) A professional archaeological survey be conducted by the developer to examine existing archaeological sites and identify any additional sites prior to ground disturbing activities; and

b)  If any artifacts or human remains are found upon excavation activity, the Tribe is to be notified and operations in the immediate area would need to cease. Mr. Hume inferred it is the responsibility of the Tribe to conduct, and pay for, the archeological survey and only if they found something would there be grounds for the conditions the Tribe set. "I don't believe there's any justification for the imposition of that," said Hume. He expressed some exasperation with the Tribe saying "This happens with every plat [proposal], there's letters that come in from the Tribe that just says 'we'd like this to happen' but there's no support for why it ought to happen."

4) Referring to the condition on approval set by the Washington State Department of Ecology that reads as follows: "The TMDL report* also indicates Latah Creek has elevated water temperature violating state water quality standards. The TMDL requires system potential vegetation along the streambanks to provide shade to the creek. According to the TMDL, in this reach vegetation should provide 45 – 48% effective shade over the creek to meet water quality standards. A riparian buffer of adequate width and plant species to achieve this shading should be included as a condition of this plan." Mr. Hume said "I don't even know what that means." He said they had their own plan for planting vegetation and said the record doesn't support the imposition of the condition.

*Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) is a regulatory term in the U.S. Clean Water Act, describing a value of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive while still meeting water quality standards."

Public testimony at the hearing was overwhelmingly in favor of denying the permits to allow a housing development. Many testifying opposed the imminent loss of the productive farmland.

Vickie Carter, representing the Spokane County Conservation district and its Board of Supervisors, offered the District's concerns with the proposed development as well as "a perspective of what might be the highest and best use of the land." Citing the development's location in a flood plain where floods capable of damaging structures and bridges are possible, she said the District's Flood Hazard Management Plan identifies the property as "best suited for open area and passive restoration of the riparian area." Further concerns the District has, she said, involve the added pollution that 94 new homes would add to the already polluted Hangman Creek and adverse affects to the wildlife that use the property a corridor. She said that between 2002 and 2012, Spokane lost 106.000 acres of farmland with the city boundaries. "There are now less than 200 acres of productive farmland in the city limits of Spokane." Ms. Carter noted, as did others testifying, that about 50% of the property, the portion that has been continually farmed for generations, is what the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service classifies as Class 1 Prime Farmland. "In terms of the land itself, production is its best use," she said. She also pointed out that Spokane County has opted in to a state program, the Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) requiring the county to plan how to preserve agricultural lands. In April 2011 the governor signed a law to allow counties to opt-in to the Voluntary Stewardship Program as an alternative means to comply with a state supreme court decision that agriculture could not be exempt from the critical area requirements of the Growth Management Act. The lead agency for VSP in Spokane is the Conservation District. In December 2018, the District published its Spokane County Voluntary Stewardship Program Work Plan as required by law. "The essence of the VSP legislation is two-fold. First, to utilize a watershed-scale, voluntary and incentive-based approach to protect and enhance critical areas that intersect with agricultural lands. And second, to do this in a manner that also supports agricultural viability," reads the District's plan. One of the policy objectives of Spokane County's plan is to "support programs and funding that preserve agricultural lands." In her testimony, Ms. Carter said the VSP Program "is also designed to prevent the loss of farmland in the county. This development project would be in direct conflict with that which we are trying to achieve through VSP but it also appears to be in conflict with the City's own Comprehensive Plan policies regarding agricultural land of local importance." She said the District fully understands the need for housing and the desires of the land owner, but she said the District is asking the hearing Examiner "we hope that you will also consider healthy soils, clean water, viable agriculture and community stewardship as values and priorities as well."

Walt Edelen, also with the Spokane Conservation District, and testified after Ms. Carter, spoke about the poor condition the District found the Hangman Creek shoreline in when it conducted extensive studies of the watershed.  He said that the reason the state has a shoreline management program is to prevent land uses that are incompatible with protecting the shoreline.  He said that developments of the sort proposed would only repeat past mistakes. "Under the City's Comprehensive Plan and the Shoreline Management Plan,  agricultural uses are supposed to be preserved," he said. Mr. Edelen continued, "I want to come to you with a solution, not just complain about the proposal that you have today. I think that there are ways to acquire this property [instead of developing it as proposed].  I know that there's a lot of interest in it. If we look at a lot of different sources such as Conservation Futures, the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy, Spokane Conservation District, land acquisition programs that we have through the Conservation Commission, the Department of Ecology Clean Water Act Section 319 federal grants, I think that there's a way to do this. This would be the end goal: That we stop manipulating our delicate shorelines and we keep them in a natural state so they can perform their given ecological functions."

Another speaker was Phil Larkin on behalf of Friends of the Bluff. He said the organization seeks to maintain the integrity of and access to High Drive Bluff Park and he described "the adverse impact this gated community could have on the neighborhood." Friends of the Bluff have primarily centered on the issue of public access to public land through the development. This is where testimony veered off into detailed legal speak, but it appears to be the position of FOB that there is a valid City ordinance giving the City authority to require access to the Bluff by the general public through the development and that the City should defend that authority. "So, as you can see, an avenue exists for the City to act constitutionally and protect the goals set forth in municipal code, the Comprehensive Plan ... You can do so by requiring a public access easement be granted through this property, specifically over the bridge," said Larkin. Larkin's comments were backed up by the next speaker, Connor Gibson, from University Legal Assistance at Gonzaga. The clinic is advising Friends of the Bluff. 

"I'm against this because it's it's one of the rare cases of agricultural land that's in our city," said Torie Foote in her testimony. Ms. Foote is a farmer and a realtor from Colbert who also works in a doctor's office. She identified herself as a member of the Spokane Food Policy Council that was formed by City Council President Ben Stuckart in 2013. "What we don't have is enough access of folks to local food. What we see in the doctor's office is growing numbers of people made ill by eating processed food-- food that's not local-- and the evidence is mounting about that. It's unusual for a city to have agricultural land in the city and it's a gift. Through the whole county we are seeing agricultural land disappearing at a rapid rate," she said. She called it a "travesty." She said preserving agriculture had not been addressed at all in the proposal and the staff report and recommended the permit for the housing development be denied.  "We don't have that much here. We need to value this land," she said. 

 Marc Gauthier, a wildlife biologist who works for the Upper Columbia United Tribes, also gave testimony. "I think we really need to look at our history to inform how to best move forward. I would just like to remind this group, and the owner, and the lawyer, and everyone in this room that this whole city of Spokane used to be a garden." Mr. Gauthier was referring to how the Spokane tribe tended the lands that are now the City of Spokane for thousands of years to sustain themselves, particularly along the banks of Hangman Creek. "Now we're down to approximately 200 acres [of farmland in the city], less than 1/2 of 1% of the land base in the City of Spokane." He said the Deep Pine Overlook proposal is similar to other attempts to develop housing on Vinegar flats farmland, in conflict with the agricultural designation of the area. The similarity being "They say that they will 'somewhat maintain' the agricultural feel. That's the same thing this proposal does. It looks at putting buildings with agricultural themes. That's how we are preserving agriculture in the city of Spokane? Not only that, we have the fact that this is on a creek that once was productive of salmon. Salmon are going to return to the Spokane River someday. The tribes in the region are working very hard to do that. There are literally millions of dollars being spent to restore Hangman Creek from its very head waters to down here at the mouth. So instead of recognizing our history and seeing this as a golden opportunity to do something positive, to leave a legacy for our grandchildren, to maintain this as working AG land or open space... We have young farmers who I speak with routinely who are wanting to grow food locally. They just don't have the land to grow it on. But rather than take this opportunity to do something special and that has a legacy that we can all cherish, we're going to allow this development of 94 small homes stacked one on top of each other right along the creek edge...  There are so many negative water quality-related impacts that are going to come from this! Here's our chance for us to acknowledge our  history and to make a change. We can take a different path. We have people who are willing to pay for that open space. We have people who are willing to pay to farm this land. I just think this is a huge mistake," he said. 

Also testifying yesterday was Whitney Jacques who runs a farm just down the road from the proposed development and operates the New School Farm there teaching new growers sustainable small-scale farming. "It would be such a shame to lose the agricultural heritage that's on that land and I feel in these situations, our voices aren't heard... it's frustrating. The wildlife that comes down that corridor is beautiful and the creek being impeded would be a true tragedy. I feel like the effect of losing that land on our foodshed in Spokane is going to be a tragedy ... I run an incubator farm so I grow new farmers. That's what we do, our farm is a non-profit. I have endless need for land because there are so many people in this area who want to learn how to farm but they can't get their own farms because farmland is disappearing. Our foodshed is seriously threatened by the loss of this land and I would feel very sad to watch it go."

This reporter testified before the Hearing Examiner yesterday as well. I publish this Journal, Inland FoodWise Online, I'm an organizer of permaculture-related events and educational opportunities in the region and I'm a member of the Spokane Food Policy Council. In my testimony, I said that I have a visceral opposition to seeing prime farmland paved over by homes, especially prime farmland that is zoned agricultural within the city limits of Spokane. I noted Whitney's use of the term 'foodshed.'  I said the piece of land in question is a part of Spokane's foodshed because the people of Spokane, through a democratic process designated this land as zoned 'Residential/Agricultural.' I said the only nod that the proposal gives to agriculture is a wagon wheel on the entry gate, split rail fences and craftsman style houses. I said that's not agriculture and that's not what the people of Spokane intended the land be used for. Because the Staff Report and the Staff recommendation seemed so biased towards moving ahead with developing the parcel in light of such obvious conflicts with the intended zoned use, I had to ask the Hearing Examiner whether the planning staff are supposed to act as advocates for the developers. He responded that staff had a neutral role but are required to come up with an opinion on permit applications. I accused the staff of cherry-picking seven goals, objectives, and policies from the Comprehensive Plan that staff said were "relevant to the proposal"  that were intended to illustrate how the proposed project conforms to those policies, but they left out eleven other Comprehensive Plan policy objectives that seriously contraindicate such conformity and I listed all eleven for the Hearing Examiner, some that had also been mentioned in Vickie Carter's testimony for the Conservation District (I also handed it, at the Hearing Examiner's request, my list of the eleven points in this document). If these had been cited by staff, it would have made it much harder for them to demonstrate that the proposal is consistent with the goals and objectives of the Comprehensive Plan. In my opinion, ignoring those eleven points was the only way planning staff could make the square peg of this proposed development fit into the round hole of responsible stewardship of the parcel.

I recorded the public hearing. Unfortunately the first half of the hearing, before the public testimony period, did not record well. The second half, however, did record nicely and I've uploaded the audio file which can be accessed here. It is an unedited recording. Below I provide the approximate time stamp for when each speaker's testimony can be heard.

Final thoughts: This proposed development is NOT appropriate for the parcel in question. More appropriate would be for the Spokane County Conservation Futures Program, a consortium of local non-profit organizations and/or educational  institutions and private donors to collectively raise funds to purchase the land (it's currently no. 3 on the Conservation Futures Program's Prioritized Acquisition List) and allow it to remain a working farm which would practice organic, regenerative agriculture to produce safe, nutritious food for local consumption while protecting the sensitive ecosystems within and adjacent to the property. For this to be feasible, the property must be priced by its assessed value as farmland, not a price inflated by its potential as a housing development on a site where its very possible authorities will never allow a development to go. It could then be used as intended, for agricultural purposes such as a site for one or more of the following: A permanent location for the nascent New Farm School, a Community Farm to grow food for low-income residents and food assistance programs, a small farm incubator to assist up-and-coming farmers in building their skillsets, a location for the Spokane County Conservation District's Vets on the Farm program that helps military veterans enter careers in farming. These uses would provide many different valuable services for the people of the city of Spokane and enhance Spokane’s quality of life. Furthermore, there would be no question. Of course the public would have carefully managed access to the Bluff through the property. In fact, a stroll through the fields and gardens as they pump out luscious local foods would itself be a destination for Spokane's many nature-lovers. Yes, Spokane needs more housing. Let’s find a better place for that than this precious gem.

We need to keep the conversation going how to fund the purchase of this land and put together a plan.

Chrys Ostrander

Tumtum, WA

(Chrys Ostrander publishes Inland FoodWise Online, an Inland Northwest journal dedicated to reporting on issues related to building a regenerative local food system. He is co-founder of the Spokane Farmers’ Market and is a member of the Spokane Food Policy Council.)

Recording Timestamps:

35 sec. - Torie Foote

1:52 - Carrie Anderson

3:30 - Marc Gauthier

8:15 - Vickie Carter

11:47 - Walt Edelen

15:30 - Phil Larkin

19:34 - Connor Gibson

28:07 - Michael Moore

35:53 - Richard Freehand

39:09 - Bea lackaff

49:00 - Whitney Jacques

52:16 - Lunell Haught

56:50 - Chrys Ostrander

1:05:25 - Rebuttal Statements

1:05:55 - Zach Sargent (developer's engineer)

1:07:26 - Taudd Hume

Edition: 
May 2019