WALLA WALLA -- Officials with the State Department of Commerce and the local government watchdog group Citizens for Good Governance criticized the city for a proposed amendment that would grant the city full authority to rezone city-owned property without regard to the comprehensive plan.
"This amendment would allow very large portions of land very suddenly to be rezoned ... and if the city wanted to zone industrial land right next to your house, that is a very large concern," Citizens for Good Governance Chair Nancy Ball said.
The city's proposed amendment could affect all public lands owned by the city within its boundaries or its urban growth area.
The amendment reads: "any City land use zone designation may be applied to any City owned lands within the Walla Walla City Limits or to any lands designated in the Walla Walla Urban Area Comprehensive Plan Map as Public."
Currently, when either the city (or a private property owner) wants to rezone land contrary to what is designated by its own Comprehensive Plan, various applications, reviews and public hearings must be completed.
Brian Walker, assistant director of Development Services, said the process usually requires several months to complete, even longer if significant environmental factors are identified.
Walker also said the process repeats itself during the development phase because developers again face applications, reviews and hearings in order to receive final approval to build.
"It wouldn't be so onerous if we would have to go through just one process," Walker added.
City Attorney Tim Donaldson, the originator of the proposed amendment, wrote that on two occasions in the last several years the city had to seek two comprehensive-plan rezones.
Donaldson went on to write that those experiences proved "burdensome, unduly time consuming, and wasteful."
In the first instance, Donaldson said a 2005 Homeland Security initiated survey resulted in the recommendation that a security fence be placed around the Clinton Street water reservoir.
In the second instance, the city wanted to do a land swap with a portion of its municipal golf course and adjacent land that was part of a privately owned RV park in an attempt to redirect the flow of the golf course to keep golf balls away from surrounding private property.
Those rezones took three or more years to complete.
While Donaldson's amendment would streamline the process, Ball said citizens would lose a major safeguard established by the comprehensive plan, and she said the proposed amendment is unnecessary.
"When we got hold of the amendment and read the examples they raised and the reasons ... we became concerned when we realized that the fence was already there. So why was this excuse given if the fence was already there?" Ball said, noting that the city was able to pass an emergency amendment to resolve the Clinton Street reservoir issue and erect the fence.
The state is also wary of the city's move to streamline zone changes.
Department of Commerce spokesman Dave Anderdsen pointed out that the current process for changing the comprehensive plan is designed to give all citizens the opportunity to either support or oppose a development.
Once the land is officially zoned, he added, the process tends to favor developers.
"Once those (comprehensive plan zoning) decisions are made, then the emphasis is shifted to the permitted process to make sure the permitting process is timely and streamlined," he said.
When a developer wants to build in accordance with the comprehensive plan, decisions on density, traffic, infrastructure and other design elements are all reviewed and determined early on in the process, usually before a public hearing has been scheduled.
The reason for this is to assure that the developer faces only one public hearing, thus streamlining the development process.
"Two values that are particularly deeply held in Washington is that we want to make the development review process as least burdensome as possible; you want to make it easy to make a response to the market quickly," Andersen said.
The other value, Andersen added, is that the comprehensive planning process is meant to be "deliberative" to make up for the fact the development process is often limited to one public hearing, after which public testimony may not be accepted.
Showing its own deliberativeness, the Department of Commerce wrote of letter to city officials dated March 17 that stated the city's proposed amendment "may allow substantial changes ... without an effective means for the city's residents to provide input."
In April, the Walla Walla Planning Commission unanimously approved the proposed amendment.
It will go before the Walla Walla City Council on June 8 for review and possible approval.
That meeting will be at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 15 N. Third Ave.