Facing legal challenges and energized citizen opposition, Spokane County says it won’t push new jail scheme to a vote this year.In a clear victory for the No New Jail citizens group and other critics of the plan, Spokane County has announced that it will not be asking voters to approve a $190 million-plus bond issue this year so it can move forward with a new county jail.
The announcement was made this afternoon at a press conference where Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich joined County Commissioners Al French, Todd Mielke, and Mark Richard.
The officials say they haven’t given up on the plan to build a new jail, but are backing off the plan to move forward this year.
“If we have a legal challenge,” Knezovich explained, “that could tie us up for years [and] could ultimately cost the citizens millions of dollars.”
The prospect of a legal challenge had been laid out in some detail on March 17th by Center for Justice lawyer Rick Eichstaedt, who was speaking on behalf of the Peace & Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS). Appearing before the County’s Planning Commission, Eichstaedt drilled into the County Commissioners’ decision last fall the declare an “emergency” to move forward with the new jail proposal in order to acquire a 429-acre tract of rural land near the Medical Lake interchange on Interstate-90. The emergency declaration was clearly an effort to avoid compliance with the standard requirements of the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) and the county’s own comprehensive plan. The site is currently zoned rural traditional and will have to be to be reclassified as light industrial to host the new jail. This will require the land being added to the county’s urban growth area, a step that typically has to be backed up with extensive evidence showing a need for a UGA expansion and documentation of careful planning to deal with traffic, utilities and environmental impacts.
Eichstaedt’s legal critique of the plan received strong backing from City of Medical Lake City Administrator Dan Ross.
“We all adhere to these ground rules,” Ross told the Planning Commission on the 17th. “Even when the City of Medical Lake goes through its growth management updates, we have to show proof that there’s a need. And there’s no proof that there’s a need for four hundred twenty-nine acres zoned light industrial. Absolutely none.”
The Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County and Futurewise (a statewide organization that advocates for compliance with the state’s Growth Management Act) endorsed Eichstaedt’s testimony.
“The struggle to change our orientation to fund ‘smart justice’ alternatives to the incarceration-only approach to creating community safety is not over at all,” said PJALS Director Liz Moore this afternoon. “But this is a very significant victory!”