Benton judge rejects Richland apartment plan

KENNEWICK — A Benton County judge Tuesday overruled a decision by a Richland senior staff member to allow a planned apartment complex to be built in south Richland.

Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell also ruled the building permits issued for the project were invalid, meaning the developer cannot legally proceed further with construction.

Some work already had started at the site at Brantingham Road and Westcliffe Boulevard, including grading and foundation work.

The apartment complex planned by developer Wolff Enterprises sparked controversy late last year after residents in the nearby Applewood Estates and Brantingham Greens developments learned the city had granted an amendment to a planned unit development that had been approved in 2005.

The amendment changed the development from a planned mix of senior apartments, assisted living and single-family homes spread across 30 acres to higher-density apartment units on 15 acres.

Rick Simon, the city's development services manager, deemed the change a minor alteration to the previously approved plan and gave his OK to it without sending it back to the planning commission and city council for public hearings.

But members of the Applewood Estates Homeowners Association and Brantingham Greens Homeowners Association filed suit against the city, Wolff Enterprises and Badger Mountain Village Investments in early October.

They argued they should have been provided notice of the changed proposal, and that the change increased the density and would add traffic to the neighborhood, drive down property values, overburden schools and could attract crime if the apartments are rented to low-income or government-subsidized tenants.

City code gives Simon the authority to approve minor changes, but Judge Mitchell on Tuesday said that it was clear to him the change was major, not minor.

He said the law requires that major changes to planned unit developments get fresh public hearings and provide opportunity for public comment.

Mitchell said the determination that the change was minor looked wrong, even though the law required him to evaluate Simon's decision and the facts of the case in light that was most favorable to the city.

"It is clearly an erroneous application of the law to the facts in the case," Mitchell said of Simon's decision.

Mitchell rejected arguments made by attorneys for the city and Wolff Enterprises that simply changing the age of the people who would live in the development constituted a minor change that was within Simon's legal authority.

Their argument was founded on the two proposals resulting in about the same number of people living in the development whether it was age-restricted or not. They said they didn't believe the neighborhood would experience significant effects from the change.

But Mitchell said it was clear the city had approved the development as age-restricted housing and always intended it to be age-restricted.

He said any departure from that plan should have been subject to public hearings.

Tony Valdez, president of the Applewood Homeowner's Association, said after the daylong hearing that he was "thrilled" with Mitchell's ruling.

He also noted the homeowner's associations aren't against development, but simply wanted the plan to be open to public input.

He encouraged all residents to exercise their rights and participate in public hearings on land use matters.

"We do want to see development. We want to see the city grow," he said. "We just felt the amendment was too major. ... We knew this case not only would affect how the city conducts land use for Applewood but for the whole city."

Deputy City Manager Bill King said the city does its best to follow laws and procedures, and thought it had done so in this case even though residents disagreed.

"There were some questions raised. Now we have clarification from the court," King said.

It was too early Tuesday to know whether the city or the developer might appeal the decision.

If Wolff decides to try to continue with the apartment development, the company will have to re-apply and go through a public process, King said.