December 27, 2012 | Vol. 116 -- No. 36

Opportunity knocks for Cheney with plunge pool

By JOHN McCALLUM

Editor

Sometimes when chasing one opportunity another, possibly better one, comes along.

Such is the case with the city of Cheney’s potential, but nowhere certain, purchase of a 15.02 acre piece of property southwest of the city between Badger and Williams lakes roads that would allow access to the northern portion of what’s referred to as the Williams Lake Plunge Pool. Part of that opportunity stems from Cheney being a Let’s Move! City, which has opened many doors, Parks and Recreation Director Paul Simmons said.

Through national grant funding Let’s Move ! Cheney has brought in a number of healthy lifestyle programs. To expand that, Simmons and Community Development Director Brian Jennings began looking at partnership opportunities with groups and agencies outside the city limits to promote recreational opportunities and link those already existing, particularly to the southwest of town.

To help with that Simmons and Jennings this past summer pursued, and received last month, a technical assistance grant from the National Parks Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) program. The grant brings no money, but rather support from Parks Service personnel to help the city work with partners to brand and market recreational opportunities.

The city asked Spokane County Parks and Recreation for a letter of support for the grant, which they received – and more. In August the county pitched the idea to the city about purchasing the plunge pool property through its Conservation Futures program.

“They knew given our grant application that we have an interest in outdoor recreation southwest of Cheney,” Simmons said.

According to its website the Conservation Futures Program was adopted by county commissioners in 1994 to “protect threatened areas of open space, timberlands, wetland, wildlife’s habitat, agricultural and farm lands, streams and water supplies within the county boundaries.” The commission set the program up for three years, approving a 6-cents per $1,000 property valuation tax to fund purchases, a figure that generates about $1.7 million annually, Spokane County Parks Assistant Director John Bottelli said.

In 1997 county citizens voted to support the program for an additional five years. They repeated that in 2002 and in 2007, by a 63 percent majority, voted to renew the program with no sunset date. As of 2011, the Conservation Futures Program has acquired over 6,000 acres through 27 acquisitions.

“We don’t condemn property to acquire it,” Bottelli said. “We only deal with willing nominators.”

Bottelli said there’s a five-year cycle that produces a list of properties for potential purchased through the program. The first step is nomination, and in the case of the Williams Lake property, which Bottelli said has been for sale for some time, that was done in 2010 by the Cheney-Spokane Chapter of the Ice Age Floods Institute.

The pool is a frequent stop on the Institute’s bus tours of what’s known as the Channeled Scablands, which dominates a good portion of Eastern Washington and of which Cheney can be viewed as the gateway. It’s also a destination for field trips from Eastern Washington University.

After nomination property sellers are contacted, and if willing to sell, sign an acknowledgement form to that extent. Signing the acknowledgement form then kicks off a quantitative and qualitative review process.

“We go out and kick the tires on every property,” Bottelli said.

That process includes everything from environmental and viability reviews to two independent appraisals to establish market value for negotiations. The properties are ranked, and each year the county sends a letter to the top 10 owners that they are on the “we should get to you this year” list.

The whole process can take eight months to a year, but if nothing seems to be happening after that, the program drops the property and moves on.

If an agreement is reached the Board of County Commissioners must approve it, and if that happens the property is purchased and turned over to the jurisdiction seeking its acquisition. Up to now that generally has been the city of Spokane.

“This would be the first time that any city other than Spokane would acquire a property,” Bottelli said “In the case of this property, we’ve been able to reach a favorable conceptual agreement with these sellers.”

The Williams Lake property is seventh on this year’s list. So far, three have been purchased, one withdrawn and two have fallen off because the purchase price was too much. Bottelli said the plunge pool is a “logical” acquisition for Cheney because the city is closer and better equipped to take care of it and it has a tie-in with the Ice Age Floods Institutes’ larger plans for the area.

“It fits in very nicely with the bigger picture of geology in our area,” he added.

Simmons sees it that way too. The city is surrounded by over 20 lakes, five public hunting zones, wetlands and hiking trails in the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge that provide wildlife viewing opportunities and roads for cyclists from novice to expert.

It’s a unique blend providing a lot of opportunities tied in with the Ice Age Floods feature, which Simmons said a survey of people coming to the Greater Spokane region indicated was one of their top reasons of interest in the area.

“From an economic development perspective there’s a lot of tourism potential involved,” he said. “It tells us there’s a kind of niche for it.”

Simmons stressed that right now, the city and county are only in discussions and that nothing regarding the Williams Lake property is near finalization. If the purchase would go through, the city would receive the property from the county at no cost, but would be able to use the purchase amount as match for other grants that could be pursued to develop it – something that wouldn’t happen until 2014.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity there,” Simmons said.

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com.

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