Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Saturday, January 26, 2008

"Wrangling over water rights will move to Spokane; Mediation set in dispute over Moscow-Pullman corridor work"

Another great article from David Johnson in last Thursday's Lewiston Tribune. Johnson uncovers the Imperial Mayoralty of Queen Nancy:
MOSCOW - The politics of water will move from the Palouse to Spokane Tuesday as officials meet in a closed-door mediation session to discuss the proposed Hawkins Companies shopping center.

Hawkins, a Boise-based development company, secured water rights transfers for its 700,000-square-foot mall in the Moscow-Pullman corridor. But Moscow Mayor Nancy Chaney appealed the transfers, igniting criticism the city is unjustifiably wielding legal clout across state lines.

Chaney said the appeals, which were filed with city council consent, stem from a genuine concern for the region's groundwater resources. Critics contend the mayor is more interested in stopping retail development in the corridor and elsewhere.

That view was voiced Tuesday night by developer Art Schultheis of Colton, who told Chaney and city council members that Moscow's appeals have effectively stopped housing construction in his Whitman County town. The city of Colton and Hawkins were about to exchange water rights when the appeals stopped the process.

"I'm here tonight to ask your city council of Moscow to rescind your appeal of the water rights transfer," Schultheis said.

Others, including Hawkins representatives and the Whitman County commissioners, have blasted the Moscow appeals as little more than a legal lever geared toward halting development.

Moscow City Attorney Randy Fife said Wednesday the mediation session may help iron out differences. He also confirmed the new city council could, by majority vote, simply rescind the appeals.

"As far as I'm concerned, the city of Moscow should have no standing in the state of Washington," Schultheis said.

But when it comes to water rights and resources, Fife said, laws in Washington and Idaho recognize that groundwater flows beneath borders.

"One of the problems is that it was initiated in executive session and nobody will talk about it," Schultheis said of the Moscow appeals. Fife said Chaney, under the city's strong-mayor type of government, has authority to file such appeals after seeking general agreement from council members during an executive session.

The new council, with five professed pro-development members, appears willing to continue closed door talks at least through next week's mediation session.

Overall regional water supply issues aside, Fife said Moscow is concerned specifically that the Hawkins development could have an adverse effect on a city well located near the development site.

If water supply is the real fear, critics have said, Moscow should have a moratorium on new housing developments and challenge other construction projects, such as the new Washington State University golf course, which will use much more water than the proposed Hawkins shopping mall.

Water experts have said Moscow and Pullman share underground aquifers and water levels have been dropping by about 1.5 feet annually.

Moscow hired water rights attorney Peter Scott, of Helena, Mont., as lead counsel in the appeal process. Fife estimated Scott's services are costing the city about $200 an hour. In addition to Moscow officials, representatives from Whitman County, the city of Colton, Hawkins Companies, and others are expected to attend the mediation session, Fife said, adding mediation provides a vehicle for much needed dialogue.

"Everybody has been talking about talking," Fife said. "Now Hawkins gets to sit down and tell the city what it needs and wants.".

Hawkins spokesman Jeff De Voe has said his company needs water and wants Moscow to share its municipal supply or stop interfering with attempts to secure water rights for their own wells. De Voe declined additional comment because of the pending mediation.

Mediator Cassandra Noble, of the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board, is scheduled to oversee the Tuesday session. Fife said mediation might last longer than one day and an accord won't necessarily be struck.

In addition to Chaney and himself, Fife said Councilor Wayne Krauss and Public Works Director Les McDonald are expected to attend the mediation session.

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