Change to rezone rules moves ahead

The City Council signed off on drafting of an ordinance that would give the city greater latitude to change zoning of its lands.

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WALLA WALLA -- A proposed amendment that would grant planners greater authority to rezone city property narrowly passed City Council on Wednesday night.

Council members Dominick Elia, Shane Laib, Jerry Cummins and Conrado Cavazos voted in favor of having legal staff draft the ordinance that would allow the city to rezone its own property as it sees fit, even if that rezone is not what was stipulated in the city's comprehensive plan.

Fred Mitchell, Jim Barrow and Mayor Barbara Clark voted against drafting the ordinance, arguing it would do away with a key part of the public hearing process and give the city more rights than the average property owner.

"The part that concerns me is that this would allow any city land use designation to be applied. That is a concern ... because in that instance the city is acting as any other landowner in the city," Clark said.

A main concern raised at the Wednesday meeting was that the city would be able to use the amendment to rezone parks and other public reserve property to commercial, then sell the property to a developer without the public ever getting the chance to testify to City Council.

"You could take and sell off a park for commercial development without much public input," City Attorney Tim Donaldson confirmed.

In response to the loss of the public's ability to testify, a motion was included to the amendment so that any time the city wanted to use its rezone authority, officials would first have to receive Council approval, thus allowing the public to give testimony directly to Council members.

Legal staff's reason for proposing the rezone amendment was that the current system is a lengthy process that often takes well over a year to complete and is costly in terms of staff hours.

"I think this is a tool that we can hand to our staff ... I think waiting a year would be frivolous on our part," Laib said.

Earlier this year, officials with the State Department of Commerce criticized the proposed amendment, as did the local group Citizens for Good Governance.

In response, a number of safeguards were added to the amendment; they include limiting city-initiated rezones to land parcels no larger than 5 acres and only on lands within city boundaries.

After the safeguards were included, the Department of Commerce withdrew its opposition, with state officials writing to the city that they had "no further concerns."

Citizens for Good Governance Chairwoman Nancy Ball, who was also instrumental in developing the city's comprehensive plan, made it clear that in spite of the safeguards, her organization opposes the amendment.

"It is a concern for us," Ball testified to City Council. "What is very important to the citizens of Walla Walla is that they would lose input."

The amendment will now be drafted into an ordinance that will be reviewed and voted on by City Council.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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