Kaiser looks to land options
Spokane, WA - Kaiser Aluminum Corp. wants 800 acres of its land near the Mead smelter to be rezoned for housing and commercial development.
If approved, the company's request would undo years of long-range planning that carefully segregated Spokane County into areas appropriate for rapidly spreading housing developments and areas for entrenched smokestack industries.
"Eight hundred acres?" county Commissioner John Roskelley asked. "That's a lot of new land for commercial buildings and apartments. That's perhaps more than we would need in that area for the next 40 years."
Kaiser owns about 1,200 acres in the area. Much of the property is full of pine trees and crisscrossed with dirt-bike trails worn in defiance of clearly posted "No trespassing" signs. The land acts as a buffer for the smelter grounds along Hawthorne Road.
Company spokesman Scott Lamb said the buffers no longer are necessary. Although the smelter could be restarted one day, the industrial lands surrounding the plant are an outdated feature of the past when seclusion was more important, he said.
Kaiser filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection 18 months ago. It is attempting to settle creditor claims and reorganize.
Part of its business plan is the attempted sale of the Mead smelter, although Lamb said he couldn't comment on any interested buyers.
Amending the county's Comprehensive Land Use Plan is Kaiser's attempt to reanalyze its properties as it retools and hunts for value, he said.
"This is an initial request," Lamb said. "Nothing more."
County planner Bruce Hunt said taking that much property out of heavy industrial and putting it into mixed use -- a term that planners use to describe areas for housing, light industry and commercial development -- would be the biggest zoning change in many years.
While such zoning changes would represent a sort of victory for neighborhoods now surrounding the property and wary of next-door industry, the county worries about erasing appropriate places to site new factories.
"Mead is one of those places where we long ago decided heavy industry was appropriate," Hunt said. "Those places are getting more scarce."
The smelter is served by sewer, railroad tracks and a knot of high voltage power lines.
Officials at the Spokane Area Economic Development Council were unavailable for comment Monday afternoon, but in the past have told of concerns about running out of room where industry can expand or be sited.
Adams & Clark, a Spokane civil engineering firm, is handling Kaiser's request and asked the county to consider the benefits of the move.
Stuart Deysenroth wrote that rezoning the lands would present good opportunities for infill and redevelopment programs.
Some of the Kaiser land in question sits along Nevada Street north of Magnesium Road. It abuts a new retirement center and is across the street from office buildings, retail stores and apartment complexes.
Deysenroth said development of this area would compliment the existing use of surrounding property and slow the urban sprawl farther north.
Another tract totaling more than 400 acres sits east along Highway 2 and south of Farwell Road.
Developing this parcel would speed environmental cleanup and may make it attractive for light industry or other commercial uses, Deysenroth said.
The aquifer under the smelter grounds is contaminated and has been listed as a state Superfund site. For decades, workers discarded old potliners and chemicals on the property before environmental laws were passed and enforced.
Kaiser is digging up the contamination and burying it atop a special liner designed to stop the toxic contaminants from leaking. The pile will be capped.
The company is not trying to rezone the land where its smelter sits, nor is it trying to rezone the land where Superfund work is being done, said Lamb.
The site for the future North-South freeway, which would link Interstate 90 with U.S. Highway 2, is just east of the Mead property.
County planner Hunt said staff will review Kaiser's request. Consideration will be given by the county's planning commission, which reviews changes to the comprehensive plan.
Actual rezoning would be months away, Hunt said.
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