A big portion of the mostly undeveloped West Plains could see an upswing in development activity as a result of action taken by Spokane County commissioners last week, observers say.
The commissioners modified the countys year-old zoning code to expand the types of uses allowed in whats called the light-industrial zone. The change was one of several code revisions the commissioners approved, but a senior county planner says it likely will have the greatest impact of the lot.
Roughly 9,000 acres of land in the unincorporated area of the county are zoned light industrial, and all but a small portion of that land is located on the West Plains. Viewed on a zoning map, it basically is one large irregular-shaped block that straddles both sides of Interstate 90 from about Abbott Road west of Spokane to just beyond the Medical Lake interchange, but lies mostly north of the freeway. It encompasses and surrounds Spokane International Airport, reaching as far west as Craig Road, and butts up against the city of Airway Heights eastern and southern boundaries, although a couple of parcels zoned for commercial use also are located within its boundaries.
The changes essentially allow a much broader range of land uses out there, so it definitely increases the development potential for that whole area, says Steve Davenport, the senior planner at the county who oversees the zoning code. It allows really almost the range of uses in the zoning code, other than some of the more intensive industrial uses.
That includes single-family-home subdivisions and virtually all types of commercial development, he says.
Pete Thompson, a commercial and industrial real estate specialist with Spokane-based Hawkins Edwards Inc., which is involved heavily in marketing property on the West Plains, says he believes the zoning-code changes cant help but elevate development activity there, though it wont happen right away.
I dont think its going to be a runaway train by any means, Thompson says, but at least its going to allow land with sewer, water, and road infrastructure (already in place) to be developed. It just makes sense.
Thompson has contended vehemently and often that the countys latest comprehensive plan, adopted in late 2001, and the new zoning code, which implements that plan, ignored economic realities by trying to steer development in the light-industrial zone to uses that are disappearing.
We have this huge preponderance of light-industrial land that nobody wants because there simply are fewer prospective users of such property now than there once were, he said in an earlier interview.
For about a five-year period beginning in 1997, the county allowed a wide range of less-intensive businesses uses to be located in the light-industrial zone. The comprehensive plan adopted by the county four years ago, though, re-imposed heavier restrictions on that zone in an effort to preserve that inventory.
That has reduced growth and certainly put a constraint on the expansion of the tax base for Spokane County, Thompson wrote in a letter early last year to then-County Commissioner John Roskelley.
Thompson now estimates that the county has a 107-year supply of light-industrial land if the absorption of such land by developers continues at the roughly 92-acres-per-year rate it has achieved over the last eight years, by his calculations. That projected supply stretches to nearly 1,200 years, he says, if based on the mere 8.28 acres per year absorbed over that period for strictly manufacturing-related uses.
Thompson cited those figures in a recent letter to County Commissioner Mark Richard, noting also that no manufacturing-related permits have been issued so far this year on land zoned light industrial.
In simple economic terms, he wrote, the supply of light-industrial land far exceeds any conceivable demand.
The commissioners action to expand the uses allowed in that zone, as recommended by the county Planning Commission following a March public hearing, is a very wise move even if it doesnt have an immediate impact, Thompson asserts. With fewer regulatory barriers, the market now will dictate what uses that West Plains property is best suited for, and those uses might well be housing, at least initially, until population growth begins attracting more commercial development activity there, he says.
Commissioner Richard says, My sense is that it will have a positive impact and, of course, thats why we did it.
He notes that some years ago, while serving as government-affairs director for the Spokane Home Builders Association, he testified against the former boards decision to eliminate performance-based zoning. That type of zoning focuses on the intensity of land use that is acceptable, rather than specifying precisely what uses are allowed.
I think we need to be more flexible when we have a less intensive use for any property than what the property is zoned for, Richard says. At the same time, he says, I think you have to balance that with how you plan for infrastructure needs, and I certainly dont want to make a decision that is detrimental to our future industrial needs.
Senior county planning officials say they intend to monitor the absorption rate of the light-industrial land under the revised zoning code and to seek further changes if needed to preserve a reasonable inventory of industrial land.
Other noteworthy changes to the zoning code were the approval of detached accessory dwelling units, such as cottages for guests or relatives, in the countys rural areas, and the allowing of manufactured homes for primary homeowners dependent relatives in all residential zones for limited periods, Davenport says.
The detached accessory dwelling units are subject to certain standards, such as they have to be within 150 feet of the primary residence, have no more than 800 square feet of space on the main floor, and be no more than 24 feet high, he says.
Its an attractive idea to have a little guest cottage. I think we will see it utilized over time, he adds.
The approval of dependent-relative manufactured homes in residential-zoned areas also will be subject to certain standards, and will be authorized only for the duration of the disability or dependency of the family member or other dependent for whom they are intended, Davenport says.
That zoning code change probably has limited application because most urban lots are too small to put a manufactured home on, either due to regulatory setback requirements or basic lack of space, he says.
The countys adoption of the new zoning code last year culminated about 12 years of effort. The new code is less than half as thick as the countys former 500-page zoning code and was touted when it was adopted as being easier to understand, more predictable, and more flexible in the mix of land uses it allows.
Despite a few mostly minor changes to it since its adoption, People have been very satisfied, I think, with the simpler format, the reduced complexity, and the staff is definitely much more happy with how it works, Davenport says. Weve gotten ride of a lot of bureaucratic processes that werent really of any value to us or to the public.
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