Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Tale of Two Stories

It's funny how two different newspapers can interpret the same event in two completely different ways.

For example, there was this story in today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News:
Completion of rural residential laws in sight; County schedules one more public hearing on proposed revisions

Proposed revisions to Whitman County's rural residential laws could become official after one more public hearing.

Public Works Director Mark Storey said Monday that county staff will meet Wednesday to discuss final changes to the proposed laws before sending them to the county commissioners.

If county commissioners approve of the changes, all that remains is a final public hearing on the matter. The hearing has been scheduled for 6 p.m. April 17 at the Public Service Building in Colfax.

Storey said the planning staff and Whitman County Prosecutor Denis Tracy have met a few times over the last three months to discuss changes to the proposed laws to make them more defensible and clear.

Questions about defensibility have haunted the proposed laws since their inception in planning commission meetings several years ago. Commissioner Greg Partch said the goal of the laws is to protect agriculture and open up the county to development, and that finding a way to balance the two takes new ideas.

Some of those new ideas spurred the commissioners to pay $5,000 to a Spokane legal firm last summer to review an early draft of the proposed laws.

Many county residents protested the expenditure, and the commissioners and county staff decided to table the proposed laws late last year after questions about defensibility and clarity arose at public hearings and county workshops.

In December, Tracy wrote a letter to the commissioners and staff outlining his concerns that aspects of the laws including viewsheds and butte protection would be hard to defend because they were relatively new ideas.

Storey and County Planner Mark Bordsen said issues over viewsheds, butte protection, and how the proposed laws coincide with the county's comprehensive plan have been addressed. Avenues for residents to appeal the new laws have been refined, and the document is more defensible.

The commissioners and planning commission have maintained that they want to protect the viewsheds of the county and its buttes and high places. With revisions, Storey said the county has established reasons why those areas should be protected.

Commissioner Jerry Finch said the Palouse is known for its rolling hills and open spaces, and the county wants to protect those assets. Commissioners and staff believe hilltop homes could damage the reputation of the county's emerging scenic byway and interfere with aquifer recharge zones.

Storey said the proposed laws in fact open up space to build by defining the areas needed to protect the buttes and recharge zones. He used a map of Kamiak Butte to demonstrate new areas that could potentially be opened for development. Past versions of the laws restricted development near the buttes. Under the current draft, areas far enough away from county roads and outside of suggested aquifer recharge zones would be open for development.

Other changes include the possibility for families to build additional dwellings on a home site.

"I think we have a fine new ordinance that ... most importantly, protects agriculture and opens up more housing options in the county," Finch said. "I think if people read the revised ordinance critically and try to put aside their emotions they will see we made a great effort to open the county and give them more options."
If one read just Ryan Bentley's story, one would think the rural residential zoning ordinance was on the verge of being passed. Actually, that is not exactly true, as evidenced by Whitman County Gazette publisher Gordon Forgey's editorial from last Thursday's edition:
Miles to Go

After years of debate and hearings, the final draft of the county's agriculture zoning codes was due at the first of the month.

That deadline has been pushed back because the wrangling continues.

Now, Denis Tracy, county prosecutor, says portions of the final proposal are flawed and may, in fact, be unconstitutional.

It is back to the drawing board, specifically in the area of "viewshed" requirements. This is the idea that the beauty of the Palouse should not be marred by the appearance of houses on hill tops. The inclusion of the concept of viewsheds in the proposed zoning ordinance and its ramifications has been a sticking point in the development of the plan.

The plan has made it this far after being run through the gauntlets of land owners and environmentalists.

As each group claims, the plan will impact all the county for years to come. As such, it is important that it be right, rather than rushed.

The final plan may still be months away. More workshops and more hearings will be held. The good news is that about the only group not trying to shape the plan is the Moscow city council and its mayor, but, of course, their hands are full stopping development in eastern Whitman County.
This thing is far from done.

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