Protecting open spaces in the Tri-Cities

Protecting open spaces in the Tri-Cities

By John Trumbo, Herald staff writer

Everywhere he looks, Bob Spaulding sees the big picture for open spaces.

That picture is in the canyons, on the hillsides, atop the ridges and along the rivers. It includes the community’s tree-canopied parks and pockets of hard-to-build-on properties hemmed in by development.

But the picture is getting smaller.

Spaulding, who is chairman of the Kennewick Planning Commission, is not alone in sensing urgency about saving Tri-Cities open space.

About 40 people met this week in Richland for a workshop held by the Ridges to Rivers Open Space Network of the Mid-Columbia to brainstorm ways to protect and connect open spaces.

“We want to preserve, promote and enjoy what we have,” said Scott Woodward, a workshop organizer.

Tyler Heibeck came to the workshop as a relative newcomer to the Tri-Cities.

“There is a lot of pride among the people here in the rivers and landscape,” he said.

Having moved from Boston two years ago, he appreciates the need to save open areas. Bostonians had the foresight 100 years ago to place large tracts of land into public trust, and today those acres are cherished open spaces, he said.

Growth will continue and open spaces will be further reduced, Spaulding said. He’s seen that in Arizona and San Diego, where he worked as a city planner, and in Seattle, where he grew up watching new homes inch up the slopes.

“One of my missions is to raise community awareness about the issue,” Spaulding said while giving a driving tour to show what is happening to Tri-Cities open spaces.

“We need the community to stand up and express their thoughts about what they value. The community can help decide what is important,” he said.

Spaulding is passionate about open space, but he’s also respectful of private property. He recognizes that landowners shouldn’t be forced to surrender their right to develop without receiving benefit.

The key is in how developers go about their business.

Open space lacking

As Spaulding steered along residential streets in Kennewick, he noted how some neighborhoods have a feel of open space that others lack.

A road that meanders and dips as it follows the contour of the landscape gives a comfortable feel and visual experience not found a few blocks away. There, a wide street shoots a flat, straight line bordered by sidewalks and faced by garage doors at equal distance from the street.

It is neat, but predictable, Spaulding said — exactly what builders, bankers and real estate agents like because they are easy to build and to sell. But the design also is unimaginative and lacks a feel of openness.

A few blocks later, Spaulding swung into a subdivision where the road flows around homes that were placed purposefully to save a wetland with tall trees. “This gives a sense of community,” he said.

A few miles west, Spaulding drove the gentle curves of Creekstone Drive. Curbs and sidewalks are incorporated into a pathway along an irrigation canal. Ridgetops above Panoramic Heights appear closer than they are, and the pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design is enhanced by trees, shrubs and grass that soften the look of the street, fencing and buildings, he said.

But the true open spaces — the hillsides, ridges and canyons — are a challenge for planners like Spaulding. One site is at the west end of West 26th Avenue in Panoramic Heights, where about 40 acres of untouched sloping shrub-steppe may soon be homes.

The landowner could place the lots evenly over the property, building on steeper portions, or he could group the homes on flatter land, leaving steeper areas open. Spaulding said the developer would spend less on earth-moving if he left the slopes untouched, but each lot would be smaller. And that could reduce the developer’s potential profit.

Spaulding said city staff can’t dictate the developer’s choice.

“We have various concepts and rules and statements (about encouraging open spaces and natural features of the land), but we haven’t gone the extra step to incorporate them into a legal document that would give staff the ability to implement those vision statements,” he said.

Richland spaces lost

What Kennewick is facing on its hillsides, Richland has already seen.

Spaulding points to areas leveled by bulldozers on Little Badger Mountain, where homes stair-step up the slope. He said hillside development that follows the contours and uses flat spots, with roads going around instead of over the top of a ridge, respects open spaces and saves having to carve out benches and build massive retaining walls.

“We need to create a sense of place by building while respecting the natural setting,” Spaulding said.

“It’s not about hurting a private property owner, but looking at what the choices are and what we value,” he added.

But Lane Carrier, a Kennewick Parks and Recreation Commission member, is uneasy about pushing the open space concept on private property owners. “We can’t dictate to the private individual as to what they have to do,” he said.

Instead, he would rather finish the ball fields at Southridge.

“I’m more concerned about what we are going to do with the spaces we already have,” he said.

Open space, even privately owned, is important to Donna Lucas of West Richland. She said a neighbor’s orchard allows her to “get away from the noise and all the people.”

Lucas talked at Thursday’s workshop about the need for trails connecting open spaces. “West Richland isn’t connected to anything,” she said, citing the Tapteal Greenway Trail along the Yakima River and Horn Rapids Park.

Most of those who attended the Richland workshop said trails and open space development should include unique sites with natural habitats, that are easy to get to and connect to other features.

An online survey by the Open Space Network over the past three months showed more than 80 percent of the 360 people who responded use natural areas, parks and the rivers. The top five recreation activities listed were walking, wildlife watching, studying native plants, touring and cycling. Canoeing and kayaking also were favorites.

Priorities listed

The survey showed Red Mountain, Little Badger and Candy Mountain were highly rated to be saved as open space and Badger Mountain Preserve, Tapteal Greenway, Leslie Groves North Natural Area and Sacajawea State Park are the most frequently used open space areas.

Respondents said the top open space priority should be expanding trails, followed by preserving important habitats and scenic views.

Dick Rasp, a 20-year-resident of Kennewick who has been a planning commissioner for 51/2 years, said, “I’m not as passionate as Bob (Spaulding) for maintaining ridges, canyons and hillsides. I’m more interested in people using the parks we have.”

Rasp said Kennewick’s smaller parks, known as pocket parks, seem underutilized. “We need to publicize them and find a way to connect them,” he said, adding walking and bicycle paths could do that.

“Our trail system (in Kennewick) is near to nothing except for Zintel Canyon,” said Rasp, who also served 111/2 years on the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission. “We need more connectivity.”

The Playground of Dreams and Columbia Park have become jewels for the city, Rasp said, but more needs to be done elsewhere.

“What we have in this area are a lot of interesting things but we take them for granted. Once they are built on it will be gone,” he said.

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