Spokane Zoning Code

How to Rewrite Spokane’s Zoning Code

…and do it for cheap, and within one year.

Ask any developer in town and they’ll tell you Spokane’s zoning code is a mess. Ask any property owner trying to put up a fence, or a shed, or re-landscape their property, and they’ll tell you that Spokane’s zoning code is a mess. Ask the Spokane Home Builders’ Association, and they’ll agree. Ask Envision Spokane, and they’ll agree. Ask any neighborhood council member. Ask any city councilmember. Ask the mayor. Ask city employees. Ask the guy who plays electronic violin in front of Riverpark Square. They’ll all tell you the same thing.

With its roots all the way back to the 1920s, Spokane’s zoning code is an antiquated parchment unfit for a 21st century city. It’s time to throw it away. Here’s how to write a new one:


Step 1: Identify Your Working Team (Who Gets a Seat at the Table?)

The first step is always the hardest, particularly when adopting new zoning codes. A wrong decision here may doom the entire project. You don’t want your team too big because then the discussion will drag on for years, but you don’t want it too small for risk of being accused of excluding valuable stakeholders. You want to make sure it’s primarily comprised of people who understand cities, real estate development, and finance, but you also want to make sure you have adequate representation from a couple citizen organizations, and a person or two from the numerous neighborhood councils.

Here’s the team I would put together:

  • The Mayor (because he/she is the boss of City Hall);
  • Two City Council people (because they are going to eventually approve the new zoning code);
  • One member from the Planning Commission (because a draft code will be vetted through the Planning Commission)
  • A local developer (because it’s their job to navigate the City’s zoning code);
  • The City’s Planning Director (because it’s his/her job to administer the City’s zoning code);
  • A rank and file City Planner (because someone is going to have to do all the dirty work);
  • A representative from the local Home Builders’ Association (because they advocate for the development community as a whole);
  • A representative from Futurewise (because they advocate for smart growth as a whole); and
  • Two representatives from the various neighborhood councils. (It would be best to pull one representative from each neighborhood council but the table is a little crowded as it is.)

Note who is not on this list: No attorneys. No traffic engineers. No city boosters. Attorneys just complicate things and the process will be complicated enough (see Step 7). Traffic engineers lack the capacity for abstract thought – they’re good at counting cars but that’s about it. City boosters are better at shaking their pompons than providing substantive contributions to a zoning discussion.


Step 2: Identify Your Leader

Because somebody has to run the meetings.


Step 3: Identify Who Holds the Car Keys

Someone must maintain and update the master document as it is developed and through (what will likely become) thousands of iterations. The best person to do all the daily dirty work (as identified in the list above), is your friendly neighborhood mid-level City Planner.


Step 4: Understand the Public Process to Adopt a New Zoning Code

Understanding the basic Washington State code requirements to adopt local land use controls, as well as Spokane City ordinances that may already be on the books that also dictate procedural guidelines to move toward a new code is critical to avoiding landmines down the road.


Step 5: Identify Shared Core Values to Build Your Zoning Code Around

Writing a new zoning code is not a simple cage match against those that want more bike lanes and those that don’t, nor is it a debate about utopic urban planning verses garden variety suburbanization. Regardless of how diverse the opinions are around the table, there are core values that most everyone will agree with.

Here are the core values I’d make an argument for:

  • Be the Central City. The City of Spokane is the center of a roughly 650,000 person direct metropolitan area, and the capitol of a roughly 1.5 million person economic region. We’re the patriarch of the metro, Coeur d’Alene is our sexy little sister, and Spokane Valley is Jan Brady. When families come to town for State B, or Hoopfest, or Bloomsday, or just to shop in the big city on a Saturday afternoon; or when new retailers look for places to establish a presence in the market; or when new employers and outside investors consider metro Spokane, it’s incumbent upon the City of Spokane to distinguish itself as a product apart from our municipal neighbors (or the County). Coeur d’Alene is a resort product, Spokane Valley is the largest of several garden variety suburban products, and the City of Spokane is the metro’s cosmopolitan product.
  • Keep it simple. The City’s zoning code does not need to be a thousand-page treatise that controls every single action of a developer or property owner. Keep it clear, concise, and simple. To the extent possible, consolidate all land use controls (City ordinances) adopted independent of the zoning code into the new code so everything is in one place.
  • Predictability. Processes, long or short, are not the enemy of a given developer, it’s the unknowns that scare them (and their investors). Establishing clear, predictable processes is not only fair to the developer, but also fair to the neighborhood that the developer is investing in. On a smaller scale, individual property owners are intimidated and confused by the present code and its zig-zag of processes. Predictability helps them invest in their property.
  • Transparency. Whether or not you’re for or against a given developer’s project, transparency enables everyone to know what it is, where it’s at in the process, and what tools are available to them to formally influence it.
  • Smart growth is economic development. Tragically, one of the primary factors restricting Spokane’s growth is its zoning code. Smart growth doesn’t separate land uses from one another like Spokane’s zoning code presently does; to the contrary, it encourages land uses to mix and create economic energy. Here’s a few of the more important smart growth items to incorporate into a new zoning code:
    • Mix uses. Mix commercial and residential uses, particularly in higher density areas.
    • Central place neighborhoods and density curve from their centers. Allow for higher building densities in neighborhood centers and gradually reduce density from the center.
    • Infill. Fill in the blanks, big and small. See Kendall Yards.
    • Walkability. This involves a handful of sub-factors unto itself but, at the end of the day, it’s the difference between walking around the Garland neighborhood center verses north Division Street.
    • Zero-out parking requirements. Want to reduce regulations and provide developers with more flexibility? This is how you do it.


Step 6: Plagiarize Someone Else’s Work

What you might think is the hardest part of the process is actually fairly simple. When writing the new zoning code, no need to go crazy with outside consultants or starting from scratch. Based on your core values, just research around the internet, pick the code you like most, and then adapt it to Spokane and the State of Washington. Here’s the template code I would choose (all 74 pages of it): SmartCode 9.2

Adapting your template code to Washington State law and incorporating pertinent independently adopted Spokane ordinances into the document will take a bit of work. Otherwise, between your working team and the citizens of Spokane, just read through the damn thing, decide what you like, what you don’t, what needs improvement, revise as necessary and, wallah! You just changed the future of Spokane.


Step 7: Attorney Review

This one is simple, just hand them the draft document and say “make sure everything is legal, red-line whatever you need, but don’t alter the substance or spirit of any section.”


Step 8: Finalize and Work Through the Adoption Process

Now it’s time to work the document through the public approval process, which will take time and likely result in more revisions. Nonetheless, in the end, Spokane will have itself a shiny new zoning code.


Step 9: Have a Drink

You just took a big step toward transitioning Spokane into a 21st century city. Celebrate, and make it a double.


In Closing

My first job out of college was for a small town located 8,200 feet above sea level in the San Juan Mountains (Colorado) – South Fork, population about 800. They hired me as their first Community Development Director. A one-man show, responsible for everything from annexations, to subdivisions, to planned unit developments, to conditional use permits, to variances, to, and here’s the big one, rewriting the town’s entire land use and zoning code.

It took a year to accomplish. We hired an outside hired gun to help add credibility to the process and, although his insights were helpful, he wasn’t worth $150 an hour.

You don’t need to hire an expensive urban planning firm to write zoning codes. All you need is a team with a fair understanding of how cities work and an even better understanding of how the private sector real estate development market functions.