While the temperatures dipped back down to the normal range for this time of year throughout the Inland Northwest this past week, there was a definite thaw in the air between the Spokane County commissioners and Spokane Valley City Council.
On Monday afternoon, the two governing bodies sat down at Spokane Valley City Hall to discuss several items of mutual interest. This was the first meeting with the commissioners since the turnover of City Council members last November, so there was plenty of hand-shaking and introductions made.
Over the next three hours, while sipping coffee and munching on cereal bars, the elected officials brought one another up to speed on areas where the two governments have clashed in the past (ownership of the Milwaukee/Appleway-extension right-of-way) and potential future partnerships (a joint building permit center). The talk, while short on details, was bookended with an overriding theme of future cooperation.
“This was very productive,” Council Member Dean Grafos said at the meeting’s conclusion. “I think we’re moving ahead instead of moving backwards.”
First up for discussion was the future of the county-owned former Milwaukee Railroad right-of-way east of University Road that could be used to extend Appleway. Since the city incorporated in 2003 there have been efforts to have the land – which the county paid $3.2 million for in 1980 -- transferred to the city that have been met with no success. After negotiations faltered and three unsuccessful attempts in court by the city to bring the property into Spokane Valley, the question of the old Milwaukee right-of-way still remains.
On Monday, the commissioners reiterated that they have always sought to preserve the right-of-way for rapid east-west transit in whatever form it might take.
“The county’s responsibility is to connect communities,” Commissioner Todd Mielke said. “My goal has been always been to preserve a continuous corridor along that route.”
While Spokane Valley officials said they shared that goal, historically the problem has been who would pay for the purchase of additional right-of-way – or “pinch points” – where the property narrows to around 60-feet wide in some areas while it is around 100 feet in others. It’s estimated that 28 feet would be needed for “rapid transit” purposes, such as light rail or electric high-speed buses.
That issue still persists, but where once the county may have been willing to give up 70 percent of the right-of-way to Spokane Valley at no cost, tough economic conditions have had an impact, the commissioners have said.
“The county needs to recoup the fair market value,” Mager said.
Council Member Bill Gothmann said it might be problematic for the city to spend taxpayer money on something its citizens already once bought in 1980 when they were under Spokane County’s jurisdiction.
“The elephant in the room is the money,” Gothmann said. “Many people they have already paid for this corridor once.”
Gothmann added, however, he recognized that the cost to buy the right-of-way was borne by “everybody” in unincorporated Spokane County. Mielke said it was a valid point, saying that those who live in his district on the north side are still wondering “when they’ll get paid back” for tax dollars that went for Spokane Valley road improvements prior to incorporation.
Richard said he wants to get a feel for “where the council wants to go” with regard to the right-of-way. But council members said they still need to have discussions on whether or not actually owning the corridor makes sense when it could be years before it is actually developed.
Susan Meyer, CEO of Spokane Transit Authority, was also at the meeting and told both groups that while STA may have future plans for the corridor, they largely will depend on what the city of Spokane Valley wants to do.