March 22, 2007 |

Crash landing

County moves to limit development near Fairchild and Spokane airport

By MIKE HUFFMAN

Staff Reporter

In a rare Friday afternoon gathering – though Todd Mielke attended via speakerphone – Spokane County commissioners closed a zoning loophole that allowed for building near Spokane International Airport and Fairchild Air Force Base.

The move keeps development from occurring in “crash zones” around both airfields. And, in the case of Fairchild, removes one more possible reason for the federal government to close the Air Force base.

“We are certainly trying to find a solution,” Mielke said. “We need to recognize what's at stake and that we are in no way ignoring the problem.”

The commissioners have been trying to reboot zoning in the West Plains after it was discovered that planning decisions last year allowed housing in light industrial areas near the airport and base. In October, commissioners approved a moratorium to stop building in those areas; Friday's vote, however, replaces that decision with an “interim official control” decision that can be renewed at six-month intervals until a permanent zone change can be enacted.

Why the change now? Because while the moratorium to new housing applied to light-industrial zones north of Interstate 90, the new decision also takes areas south of the freeway into consideration. Still, a 207-unit housing development near Thorpe and Grove – in the airport's crash zone -- did get the OK before the commissioners could take any action last week.

“We want to freeze time while we look at this,” Commissioner Mark Richard said. “It seems that every time that we get into this, we run into more challenges.”

In order to protect themselves and for future runway development, the land surrounding the airport and base is zoned rural and light industrial.

Until last summer's zone change -- where Mielke and Richard, along with then-Commissioner Phil Harris decided to loosen light-industrial restrictions -- housing was kept out of the latter zoning.

One of the unforeseen results of the commissioners' decision was the authorized construction of a day-care center in the future Ambassadors Group building on Flint Road, in a crash zone of Spokane International Airport. If built, a day-care center could prevent the airport from building a needed and planned future runway.

And if apartment complexes or other homes get built too close to Fairchild, the fear is anticipated noise-complaint calls could eventually prompt federal officials to close the Air Force base.

The commissioners say they made a mistake they are now trying to rectify.

“This is just a start,” Mielke said. “In no way are we done with regard to the airport. We still need to do some things to clean this up.”

In order to keep the restriction, the commissioners must hold a public hearing on the matter within the next eight weeks. New hearings will have to be held every six months to keep the new version of the moratorium current until a long-term solution can come from planners.

“We're all doing the best we can to balance the need for housing and light-industrial uses, plus the needs of the airport and base,” Richard said. “None of this is perfect. Some people are going to agree with this. Some are going to disagree.”

Mike Huffman can be reached at mhuffman@cheneyfreepress.com

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