Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"No clear path; Controversy continues about the future of Pullman-Moscow corridor"

The story below comes from today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Congrats to Hillary Hamm for doing such a good job explaining the corridor development history. Compare Sig Jorstad's common sense with Nancy Chaney. We have too little good old- fashioned common sense around here.
The Pullman-Moscow Highway would still be a slow-moving country road if Sig Jorstad had his way.

But the 93-year-old knows it’s not smart to stifle growth. He knows development in the prime real estate situated along the corridor between the cities is inevitable.

“No matter what you like, we’re gonna have it,” he said. “I’d rather go ahead with them than fight with them. It’s gonna come.”

Development in the corridor has been a longstanding issue for Whitman County officials.

Now, it’s become a point of contention for Moscow, Pullman and the surrounding area as well. Every entity — if not everyone — has an idea of how they’d like to see the corridor developed.

The way it was

Jean Wardwell, a longtime member of the Whitman County Planning Commission, said there were two important factors in determining what types of business would work in the corridor: availability of water and whether access on and off the highway would be available.

“We did not envision stand-alone restaurants and that sort of thing,” said Wardwell, who was chairwoman of the commission from 1997 to 2006.

Lumber yards, car dealerships and mini-storage businesses were parts of the conceptualized corridor development.

“Something that takes a lot of space inside a city, but if put between the two cities, it could serve both,” Wardwell said.

Numerous drafts were drawn up before the Whitman County commissioners adopted the ordinance and zoning language for the corridor in 1999. It has since been amended, most recently in 2005.

The corridor currently is zoned for light industrial and heavy commercial ventures. Planning guidelines outlined in the 1999 document identified appropriate corridor development to include industrial uses such as manufacturing and assembly businesses, as well as wholesale and retailers.

Conditional uses on both the north and south sides of the corridor include campgrounds, child care centers, communications towers and facilities, assisted-care facilities, hotels, motels and inns, moving businesses and storage units, office buildings, government offices, pharmacies and emergency health-care facilities, plus several types of retail establishments.

Separate documents regulate zoning on both sides of the highway to sort development. The main reason for the split was to make it easier to allow mining on the south side of the road but not permit any new mining on the north side.

Wardwell said writing the ordinance was a daunting task. It was difficult to create a business route open for development while preserving the integrity of the transportation corridor and protecting the environment. All ordinances had to comply with the State Environmental Policy Act, which requires municipalities to consider the environmental consequences of a proposal before approving or denying the plan.

“We tried to write language that the Department of Ecology wouldn’t have heartburn over,” Wardwell said. “The environmentalists are why there are so many hoops to jump through.”

Original site requirements identified that lots must be 10 acres or more and 300 feet must separate the front of a parcel and the public right of way. Setbacks from the highway were pinpointed in addition to landscaping rules, traffic access flows, strict instructions regarding stormwater control and grading guidelines to reduce erosion.

Wardwell said corridor development is reliant on the Washington State Department of Transportation’s highway-widening project, which is under way. The “footprint” left by the new road will determine the landscape and what types of businesses are practical and acceptable.

The way it is

Water — or a lack thereof — is the biggest hang-up to development in the corridor.

“Water is a huge problem,” Wardwell said. “Water will hold off development for years. Water is going to become more and more of an issue.”

Wardwell said she knows development would occur more quickly if the area was primed with infrastructure, such as having sewer and water hookups already strung to corridor properties.

But the financially pinched county can’t afford the expense.

“That’s never going to happen,” she said. “I know, it’s less attractive for developers. It was never discussed because we always knew we didn’t have the money.”

Pullman can’t afford to stretch services far into the corridor either. Mayor Glenn Johnson said providing water and sewer services to Sunshine Road was estimated at about $14 million in 2005.

“We’re going to have to work together and figure this out,” he said.

Even if a developer can obtain land and has the money to begin construction, it could take years to get a water right, which is a decision completely out of the county’s hands. Water rights are awarded by the Washington State Department of Ecology and a right hasn’t been granted in Whitman County since 1992, Wardwell said.

“Water has stymied any growth,” she said. “It’s going to take someone really determined. We could take all the ordinances out and say you could do whatever you want out there, but that still wouldn’t make water.”

Wardwell noted that a water right is not necessary for properties that use less than 5,000 gallons of water per day. In these instances, an exempt well can be claimed. Businesses such as car dealerships and lumber yards could operate without the need for much water.

Jorstad scoffs at the idea that water is scarce. He said too much red tape is to blame for slow development in the corridor.

“It takes months to get a permit, and it doesn’t take one permit. It takes dozens of permits,” Jorstad said. “They’ve got it now so they’ll tell you what color to paint your house. They’re plumb nuts.”

The process was simple when Jorstad and his wife, Carol, decided more than 40 years ago to build their home 1.5 miles outside of Pullman. He said they went to the Whitman County offices in Colfax, got a building permit and started construction. The area was mostly undeveloped at that time and primarily consisted of agricultural land.

Jorstad, who owns about 30 acres in the corridor, has been willing to sell property to developers in the past. In the 1990s he offered some of his land for a joint Pullman-Moscow hospital. He’s invited big-box stores to the property and continuously receives offers to purchase his land.

Developers have been interested, he said, but they end up backing out because of the lengthy permit process and various requirements needed before construction can begin.

Wardwell said the corridor zoning ordinance has been tweaked a bit over the years to allow for more leniency. Parcel sizes now can be as small as 3 acres and impervious surfaces can take up 75 percent of the lot.

“When you write a regulation, you have to allow for the environmental concerns and aesthetic concerns while allowing the development,” she said, noting that the planning commission tried to appease developers, environmentalists and state and federal guidelines when writing the ordinance.

“Good planning takes care of everybody,” she said. “It should take care of the people that want to develop and please people that don’t want development and preserve the area for the future.”

Johnson said he has no particular vision for the corridor, though he hopes Pullman car dealerships stay in town, rather than flocking to the highway. If dealerships leave the city limits, the city will lose a portion of its revenue stream and the money would go to Whitman County.

“That’s our retail sales tax,” he said. “I want all the car dealerships we can have inside the city.”

Wardwell said she understands cities fear for their revenue.

“I’m one of those people who can see both sides,” she said. “All the entities ... are facing tight budgetary times. Of course, they don’t want their sales tax hurt.”

James Toyota in Moscow currently is working through permit regulations to move out onto the highway, a mile west of the city in Whitman County.

Moscow Mayor Nancy Chaney has been vocal about restricting development in the corridor and protecting natural resources, such as the aquifer and Paradise Creek, which runs parallel to the highway. She has been honest that she disagrees with the idea to move James Toyota into the corridor and Hawkins Companies’ proposed 600,000-square-foot retail development, which would be located just northeast of the Toyota dealership.

“I think that having just one person’s vision represented would be detrimental to the possibilities,” she said. “Contributing to sprawl is counterintuitive as we move toward the knowledge corridor.”

Still, Chaney said she looks forward to having a regional dialogue about corridor growth.

“I’m not without ideas but it’s not about my vision, it’s about our communal vision,” she said.

Johnson agreed.

“I think we can do a lot of things cooperatively with the county,” he said. “We’re going to have to work together to figure this out.”

The way it’s going to be

Champion Electric and Lighting owner Sam Young was lucky to move into a pre-existing building in the corridor 10 years ago. The business relocated from downtown Pullman.

Young said he expects development to boom when the highway is completed.

“When the road is done, there will be a lot more development in the corridor,” he said. “We would have had growth five years ago if the highway had been (widened) five years ago.”

Jorstad agreed.

“They’re already plotting lots out there,” he said. “The homes will come as soon as the businesses come.”

Until then, the debate over exactly what should be built in the corridor and where it should be located likely will continue.

“It is a controversy,” Wardwell said. “It’s going to be an ongoing issue.”
More about Whitman County and the "knowledge corridor" later.

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