Once-sleepy West Plains towns consider pushing boundaries
The city limits of Airway Heights and Cheney may be poised to grow as residents and jobs pour into the West Plains.
Officials in both cities are considering if they should push to expand their urban-growth boundaries. Spokane County adopted an urban-growth area in 2013, which designates development in the boundary as urban and dictates where utilities, such as sewer, can be extended to make way for future growth.
Expansion of the boundary sets the table for a city to annex land and expand city limits. But state law aimed at slowing sprawl sets strict requirements to be able to change rural areas into urban.
The county entered an agreement in 2016 with state agencies, neighborhood associations and planning advocacy group Futurewise that resolved four lawsuits but limited expansion of the county’s urban-growth boundaries until 2025.
However, the settlement doesn’t impact smaller cities such as Airway Heights and Cheney from opening their boundaries for expansion, Spokane County Commissioner Al French said at a Feb. 20 Growth Management Steering Committee meeting.
The committee – consisting of elected officials from the county and neighboring cities – met to consider modifications to urban-growth areas in Cheney and Airway Heights.
“This is not only critical for being able to make sure they have adequate land to continue to grow, but also it’s critical to meet the housing demands that are now becoming very prevalent on the West Plains with the new Amazon facility, some of the other manufacturing facilities and with Fairchild Air Force Base talking about bringing in two additional (air) wings,” French said.
Growth in the West Plains is a result of city and county efforts in the past decade to transform the area by bringing in jobs, improving transportation options and examining the need for available, affordable land.
“We’re seeing some of the pressure points associated with that,” Airway Heights City Manager Albert Tripp said. “We are also seeing pain points with just the availability of properties zoned for residential use.”
Tripp said Airway Heights is evaluating either exchanging a section of nonresidential land that contains the Spokane County Off-Road Vehicle Park for another piece of land outside of the urban-growth boundary to accommodate more housing, or adding property to the urban-growth area without the land exchange.
The county adopted a 20-year future population growth forecast in 2017 based on data from the Washington State Office of Financial Management. Airway Heights is expected to gain more than 5,200 residents by 2037 for a total population of more than 14,000.
However, because Airway Heights is expected to achieve more than 50 percent of its 20-year estimated population growth this year, the city may be able to reconfigure its urban-growth boundaries.
“I think they are going to hit (the population estimate) in spades this year without much of a challenge, and I don’t know that Airway Heights can accommodate all that growth within their boundaries, but they can accommodate an awful lot of it,” French said.
One challenge is to integrate a wide variety of housing types in the West Plains, said Bill Grimes, consulting planner for the city of Airway Heights.
Grimes said Airway Heights completed a study that examines how to boost higher density housing, such as apartments, along the U.S. Highway 2 corridor.
“When we start talking about UGA expansion, it’s not because we are looking for continuously single-family patterns of growth,” Grimes said. “I think what we’re trying to do is balance the type of residential development that we’re looking for.”
Grimes said residential land is being developed at a “pretty high rate” in Airway Heights. There are three planned subdivisions with a combined 490 lots.
“We may not be at that 51 percent yet, but we’re really approaching that quickly,” Grimes said. “Perhaps we’ll be there by the end of the year.”
French said it’s imperative to begin planning for growth now in the West Plains because it will take time to conduct studies and adjust urban-growth boundaries.
French said while Airway Heights has apartments, airmen stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base often want to own homes.
Medical Lake officials said they aren’t interested in changing their urban-growth boundaries because they have sufficient space and are also grappling with a water shortage that limits development.
Cheney and Airway Heights will need to submit a letter requesting expansion to the Growth Management Steering Committee, which will conduct several public meetings for citizens to provide feedback. The cities are required to provide documentation and data demonstrating they meet the population threshold as indicated in the countywide planning policy.
The Growth Management Steering Committee could then make recommendations to county commissioners, which would hold their own public meeting.
Cheney Senior Planner Brett Lucas said discussions are underway with a developer who owns a bulk of land in the city, but right now, they are in a “holding pattern” for boundary expansion.
“We will have a meeting with county officials and the state for options on the table,” he said. “We can either do a land swap and move the developer’s land somewhere else or expand the urban-growth boundary, but we aren’t quite there yet.”