Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"A Call to Action for Whitman County"

Here is my column that appears in today's Whitman County Gazette (yes, I've been a busy boy):
It’s time we got mad.

Gordon Forgey, the publisher of this newspaper, has been pointing out for some time that Moscow is completely out of line in its interference with commercial development in the Pullman-Moscow corridor. We must act now to put a stop to this meddling by Moscow.

A recent study commissioned by the Moscow Chamber of Commerce found that Pullman had a net retail sales leakage of approximately $95.5 million in 2004. Rural Whitman County lost a net of $62.9 million in retail sales. Much of this escaped to Moscow.

This leakage has caused Whitman County to suffer financially for the last three decades. In the last two years, we have voted to raise the sales tax twice to fix the jail and emergency communications. And yet, the county has never once attempted to halt the massive retail development in Moscow along the state line.

The Hawkins Companies proposed 745,000 sq. ft. shopping mall in the corridor would be a huge financial boon to the county. The International Council on Shopping Centers says the national average of sales per square foot for regional malls is $341. That means the Hawkins project could generate some $254 million a year in sales. At a sales tax rate of .013, that would mean an extra $3.3 million for the county’s annual budget! This doesn’t include property tax revenues, which would be substantial.

As Gordon has accurately pointed out, this tax money will benefit every resident, even in the farthest reaches of Whitman County.

Moscow has opposed this development ostensibly over concerns about pollution and water supply. The city has now filed an official protest of Hawkins’ request to transfer four water rights. However, based on Moscow’s actions within its own borders, these objections ring hollow.

According to a notice published in the Gazette last week, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a penalty in the amount of $134,000 against Moscow for breaches of the Clean Water Act. The EPA found 950 violations between March 2002 and June 2006 of standards for phosphorus, dissolved oxygen, total residual chlorine and fecal coliform bacteria. The city avoided a $2.5 million fine by pleading guilty.

A couple of weeks ago, the Department of Ecology informed Whitman County residents that the South Fork of the Palouse River is an “impaired” waterway. In light of the EPA announcement, it’s not hard to figure out that much of the pollution is flowing into the river from Moscow via Paradise Creek. Now, thanks in part to Moscow, Whitman County residents could be faced with tighter new regulations that restrict private property rights.

Where is the similar concern over residential water usage? The Palouse Basin Aquifer Committee figures the average household with the average number of residents (2.35) uses approximately 111,500 gallons of water a year. Based on project descriptions, the PBAC estimates the Hawkins mall will use approximately 39 million gallons of water a year when fully built out.

Now let’s compare the numbers. Moscow added 236 new housing units in 2003, 249 in 2004, and 289 in 2005. Those numbers of new housing starts were higher than in all but one of the previous 33 years. Growth in Moscow over just a three-year period now withdraws from the aquifer at a rate over twice as much (86 million gallons) as the planned Hawkins development. And this unfettered growth continues. Just last week, the Moscow City Council approved construction of 27 new single-family homes.

This building frenzy no doubt explains why, according to the PBAC, Moscow exceeded the Ground Water Management Plan's voluntary 1% (of 1986-90 average) annual pumping increase target every year from 1992 to 2005. The 5-year moving average of annual pumping by Moscow over those 14 years missed the target by a combined 763 million gallons! Moscow’s sudden about-face on retail and support of “sustainable” development obviously has nothing to do with water conservation as long as new houses rapidly keep going up over there.

After a decade of hard work, we finally see development in the corridor. Now, our constitutional right to determine our own destiny is being trampled by outside interlopers. A government we did not elect wants to hold Whitman County to standards that it is either unwilling or unable to comply with itself. The county’s development standards are already very high. Moscow’s effort to impede and/or halt our necessary growth, without any logical, legal or scientific basis, seems like a smoke screen designed to cover a multitude of its own sins and protect its retail monopoly on the Palouse.

What can you do? Attend the Whitman County Water Conservancy Board meetings. Write a letter to the editor. Submit comments about Moscow’s water pollution to the EPA. Don’t shop in Moscow. You can’t vote in their elections, but you can vote with your wallet. And be sure to sign the Businesses & Residents for Economic Opportunity petition to the Moscow City Council at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/breo/.

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