The Spokane County Planning Commission will hold a virtual public hearing via Zoom on Thursday, June 17th, 2021 at 9:00 a.m. on this and other proposed amendments to the County's Comprehensive Plan. (Zoom info)
According to the Cheney Free Press, the City of Airway Heights is the fastest growing city in Washington. Really? The Airway Heights water supply is contaminated, so it has to buy all its water from Spokane. Really? It's receiving $15 million from the State to drill new water wells, and still asking for $21 million more from the federal infrastructure bill. Really? It's fighting the County's sale of Spokane Raceway Park to the Kalispel Tribe because it doesn't want to lose the potential tax revenue. Really? It's promoting a land swap to annex prime agricultural land for high-density housing. Really? Does this sound like a big hot mess to you? Does this sound like "growth at any cost?" Does the West Plains sound or look like the future of Spokane County that you want to see?
The Wild West is history, and it should stay that way. Government officials in emerging western cities must no longer look upon governing as a seemingly limitless financial opportunity but rather a duty to steward. Stewardship preserves resources and manages them responsibly. Stewardship protects and improves the quality of life for the residents within a jurisdiction and won't tolerate diminishing that quality by building out for more people than the land can carry. The long-range plan for this land swap in Airway Heights seems to be to reclassify the zoning of all the parcels involved in the swap from "Rural Traditional" to one or more zoning designations that would allow for denser housing development. The Rural Traditional classification provides for one dwelling per 10 acres. Perhaps an old off-road vehicle park tucked in with a gravel pit, a jail, and more high-density housing offers a suitable place to build new housing. However, the other parcels involved in the swap consist of 180 acres of open agricultural land. More critically, they are all classified by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service as "Prime" agricultural soils-- the highest grade classification. Prime ag soils can be productive even when they're not irrigated and are of such quality that much less water is needed when they are irrigated. Apart from Airway Heights' ongoing water quality and quantity tragedy, every growing city in the era of climate change should seek to preserve its nearby agricultural resources.
In a Zoom call on June 10 with thousands of farmers, food system workers, and journalists, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $4 billion of new federal funding that will be deployed across the nation in the coming months to strengthen the national food system. Noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to massive disruption for growers and food workers through the food system, Vilsack said that "historically we've had a very efficient system, but efficiency comes with a price, and that price is the lack of resilience ... [COVID] exposed a food system that was rigid, consolidated, and fragile". In response, the USDA will invest funds to strengthen the food system, support food production (with a focus on local and regional production), improve processing capacity (with a focus on small- to medium-scale processors and the producers who supply them), build distribution and aggregation infrastructure, and develop market opportunities. The City of Airway Heights should consider applying for some of those new federal food system dollars, as should other jurisdictions in our region, and rise to this rare opportunity to invest in future resiliency by investing in the local food system. Balancing the full range of community needs with population growth is the best strategy for planning a future based on community well-being.
Despite this, it certainly looks as if a municipal government and its developer friends once again have their eyes on rare arable lands as a target for city-density growth simply because it's open land, flat, nothing there, easy to build on. But something is there--the potential for a regional food supply. Likely, food production would consume far less water growing food on 180 acres for the next 100 years or so than a dense housing development would demand over that same time. So the City of Airway Heights, and its residents, might pause and reflect on whether this is good stewardship.
Our position is that Spokane County's Planning Commission should not approve this land swap. Airway Heights can still work with the County and build housing on the ORV park if it chooses. What Airway Heights decision-makers need to hear, however, is that they do not have a green light to take 180 acres of agricultural lands and expose them to development pressures by adding them to the Urban Growth Area.
A public hearing on the Airway Heights land swap (and other County Comprehensive Plan amendments) is scheduled for June 17, 2021, at 9:00 am. Visit the County's website for more information and submitting your written comments:
The land swap is amendment No. 20-CPA-07.