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Preserve Vs. Road: Southeast Washington’s Growing Pains Erupt In Public-Planning Battle

Anna King
Northwest News Network

The Tri-Cities are growing faster than most other metro areas in the Northwest, or the nation. From a high spot like Badger Mountain, it’s easy see how rapidly new neighborhoods are leveling off ridgelines and hacking into fruit orchards.

Nearly every week, development in the wide-open spaces of Eastern Washington is celebrated with golden shovels and ribbon cuttings. But that’s beginning to change.

Now there’s a very public pinch point: a small track of wildland versus a planned city road.

"You know you’re in a special place"

The Amon Creek Natural Preserve is a tiny bite of city-owned land that includes desert, riparian and wetland habitat all squished together.

“What we are looking at is a place that you come to get away from everything else in a hurry,” Scott Woodward said. He leads a non-profit centered on preserving open space in the Mid-Columbia.

Amid sagebrush-studded hills that plunge down into reeds and ponds, this small ribbon is almost surrounded by dense development.

“Just listen,"Woodward said. "You don’t need a vision, you just listen and you know you’re in a special place.”

The land is home to over 150 different species of wildlife. Cinnamon Teal ducks, coyotes, beavers and even the elusive black-tailed jackrabbits. Woodward fears losing this desert oasis. "You lose Black-tailed jackrabbits and he’s kind of cool with the big floppy ears," he said. "When he’s gone -- you know that the rest of it is gone.”

Woodward’s group organized the purchase of this land several years ago to protect it. They knocked on 2,000 doors, and landed major government grants. But being a land manager is expensive and it was not part of the group’s long-term plan. So, they turned it over to the city with the assumption that Richland would protect the 80-acres from future development.

Room for a road?

It was a hopeful assumption that doesn’t appear to be panning out.

Credit City of Richland
City of Richland
Preliminary plat of a housing development near Amon Creek in Richland, Washington.

The City of Richland’s public works director, Pete Rogalsky, says the preserve’s land-use agreement included a dotted line for a planned road.

“A road that crosses it would have to do so with a lot of sensitivity and be planned correctly because the whole thing hasn’t come into focus until just recently,” he said.

The “just recently” is a proposed subdivision that’s fast-tracking key decisions about where that road should go. Or if it should go anywhere at all.

Rogalsky insists the road would serve people beyond the new subdivision. “There are people in Benton County that will use this road to get to the Columbia Center Mall and the Toyota Center and other places in the heart of Kennewick.”

Rogalsky says inadequate streets for populations and developments ends in traffic jams, long waits and accidents.

Still, the proposed road and subdivision is dividing the Tri-Cities.

"No other place like this"

Ongoing city council meetings on the issue have been packed and the tenor of conversation is getting nastier by the day.

At a recent meeting, most of the people were there to plead Amon Creek’s case, including Bill Kinner. He noted that at the turn of the last century, a road was proposed along the west rim of the Grand Canyon.

“The people there voiced their concerns," Kinner said. "And their leaders listened.”

Although most of the council members spoke about their concerns with the development and the proposed road across Amon Creek, all but the mayor voted in favor of rezoning the private land for housing.

Woodward says there are plenty of other places for roads at Amon Creek, so why put one there?

“There is no other place like this in the whole region," Woodward said. "Right next to coyotes you have river otters. That’s going to go away.”

Final decisions on the proposed development and the city’s road are expected by early June.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.