Splash photo by Craig Howard

Gary Bernardo of Bernardo/Wills Architects (forefront) makes a point during a Dec. 6 workshop on the city of Liberty Lake’s development code. Matt Hoffman of Garco Construction and City Administrator Katy Allen are pictured in the background.

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Development code workshop revives discussion of design standards, signage
12/12/2012 10:30:26 AM

By Craig Howard
Splash Contributor

Attendance was light, but the conversation was heavy at a development code workshop hosted by the city of Liberty Lake last week.

Big topics - like signage restrictions and the impact of design standards on commercial influx - were discussed at the Dec. 6 meeting in light of potential amendments to the development code in 2013. Passed in 2006, the code serves as a mechanism for implementing requirements outlined in the city's comprehensive plan, a blueprint for development in Liberty Lake over the next 20 years.

"It's always good to get feedback," said Amanda Tainio, the city's planning and building services manager. "We've revised it on an annual basis to function in a more streamlined, coordinated process. This is kind of a time to hear what's going on now and what we may need to docket for 2013 or future amendments." 

The meeting at City Hall featured representatives from Huntwood, Garco Construction and Bernardo Wills/Architects, chiming in with ideas and concerns while Mayor Steve Peterson, City Administrator Katy Allen and Tainio tuned in. Council Member Lori Olander was also in attendance for the first part of the workshop. 

"We're here to answer the customers, and you're the customers," Peterson said. "The message we're trying to take forward in the next four years is do we have all the tools we need to make us successful?"

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Matt Hoffman of Garco related a story of one local business - Tire Distribution Center - that opted out of locating in Liberty Lake based on architectural improvements to a prospective site that were mandated by the city.

"We've had a couple of clients that had been looking at Liberty Lake, but because of  the cost of adding architectural features, decided to look somewhere else," Hoffman said. "There are going to be some people that say ‘I'm going to pay that extra to be in Liberty Lake,' but we've had a handful already that say, ‘We're not going to pay the extra.'"

Bernardo, a Liberty Lake resident whose architectural firm has worked on a range of properties within the city, said developers "are looking for some sort of clarity about the code, about what the standards are and, almost more importantly, what the process is." 

"The code needs a clear, reasonable path to navigate with reasonable, accurate durations for decisions," Bernardo said.

Reflecting on Hoffman's story about the tire store, Bernardo said sometimes it's a case of a company "spending a few extra bucks to be in Liberty Lake because that's where they want to be."

"We've heard this from a company that is looking now and would really like to be in Liberty Lake," Bernardo said. "They see it as an upgrade over Spokane Valley or the West Plains, and they're willing to factor that into the price of the project. One of the impediments for people locating in Liberty Lake isn't the cost of the design, it's the cost of the property."

Allen pointed out that Liberty Lake's emphasis on aesthetics has resulted in an environment that many companies find appealing. She said the ripple effect can also be seen in escalated property value. 

"The businesses that are here who built to that standard want us to hold that standard," Allen said.  

The city administrator added that the approach to development standards should be fair and consistent, adhere to regulatory standards and "include the expectations of the mayor and council because they set public policy."

"Maybe it's not just the code, maybe there are other things that we need to be aware of," Allen said. "I don't know if it's going by the book as much as it's the people or the organization that can convey a positive work environment. It's that trust and credibility. The process is everything."

Alluding to the issue of signage, Brandon Hunt of Huntwood said the custom cabinet business would like to see an indicator along Interstate 90 that directs customers to the company's retail site.

"That's probably the biggest issue we have that's ongoing - trying to get people to realize where the Bargain Hunt store is," Hunt said. "At some point, it gets old saying ‘We're behind the George Gee building.'"

Peterson said he would like to see two city-sponsored articulating signs on either side of the freeway in the style of the mammoth International Gateway Corporate Park electronic billboard near the Argonne/I-90 exit.

"We have 80,000 cars go by here a day, and I need to get them off the freeway and get them back here to spend money," Peterson said. "I want to deliver a marketing message. My goal is to sell stuff."

Allen said there have been concerns expressed by some businesses that "customers don't know where to find them, especially if they're not on a main arterial." Still, she emphasized that "we don't want to become a city of signs."

"We don't want billboards, we don't want strobe lights," Allen said. "Some people feel that signage makes a difference. Others feel it doesn't make a difference."

Hunt acknowledged that a wayfinding sign program considered by the city several years ago "probably wasn't the way to go," but recommended that consideration be made for signage on a building that is proportionate to an increased percentage of the structure's outside space. 

"I like the beauty of Liberty Lake, but also want to make sure you can find businesses," he said.

Bernardo agreed, saying signage limitation "can be a deal-breaker on the retail side." 

"I like signage to be controlled -I don't like an eyesore, but I think signage on a building has a whole different meaning than it does on the streetscape," Bernardo said.

Comments from the workshop will be reviewed by the city's Planning Commission, Tainio said. The list of potential amendments includes topics such as the integration of trees and traffic signs, trail and path definitions and standards for exterior lighting, parking and landscaping.

Peterson said the city hopes to hear more thoughts from the development community as the process moves forward. 

"We want to hear your comments," he said. "All we're trying to do is get the feedback so we can make the changes."