Conflicted City Council OKs six of nine low impact development ordinances

After hearing from developers and homeowners that councilmembers were moving too fast on the passage of nine low impact development ordinances aimed at complying with federal law, a conflicted council decided Thursday night to approve six of the ordinances and reject three others.

The council chose not to pass all nine ordinances — the result of six months of work by city staff and elected officials — despite a warning from City Attorney Greg Schrag that the city could be opening itself up to legal action — including a $10,000-per-day fine from the State Department of Ecology. The city manages its stormwater through a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, which is administered through the Washington State Department of Ecology. To comply with updated federal NPDES rules, the Ecology Department is requiring all Western Washington cities to implement low impact development practices by Dec. 31, 2016.

Low impact development is an approach to managing stormwater through on-site infiltration and absorption rather than collecting stormwater and sending it downstream, with the goal of protecting overall water quality.

The three ordinances that didn’t pass contained elements that generated considerable concern from the public, including the process for site applications and assessments; requirements for retaining or replacing trees and for permeable surfaces; and thresholds for clearing or grading property.

The votes on those three measures all failed on 3-4 votes.

The six that did pass involved clustering and restructuring provisions in single-family residential zones; low impact development related to subdivision standards and code consistency; and amendments to landscape regulations and parking standards. You can see details of all ordinances here.

Ten people offered testimony during a public hearing prior to the council vote, with a common theme: The council was moving too quickly to approve the ordinances and both developers and homeowners who will be affected by the new requirements haven’t had sufficient time to weigh in. Some of those attending were particularly frustrated by the fact that city staff were making changes to the ordinances up until Wednesday night, with a public hearing scheduled for Thursday evening.

Resident Ron Skinner likened the process to “a last-minute sort of shotgun wedding.”

“There’s not a lot of time to digest and understand all this stuff,” Skinner added. “These things have a great deal of impact on our community.”

“My concern is that we’ve just had no time to process this,” added Lindsay Jackson of Mountlake Terrace.

Also speaking was Joseph Rowett of Landsverk Homes, who had circulated a flier urging citizens to testify at Thursday’s meeting, stating that homeowners may not be aware of the impact that the ordinances could have on developing their property. Noting a proposed requirement that would allow homeowners to cut down only one tree per year on their property without paying a fee, Rowett suggested an example of a young couple who wanted start a vegetable garden but had three trees on their property. “Do they really have to wait three years before they get to have their vegetable garden?” he asked.

Prior to taking a vote, some councilmembers expressed their own reservations about the ordinances, stating that they hoped that further tweaks could be made — even after passage — to address citizen concerns about them.

“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Councilmember Kyoko Matsumoto Wright. “If I vote one way or the other, it’s not because I’m in favor of all the changes. There’s always going to be something in every single one of these that I am hoping that will be worked out later.”

In response to a follow-up question from Mayor Pro Tem Rick Ryan, City Community and Economic Development Director Steve Osguthorpe noted that the city intended to monitor and review the impact of the ordinances after one year, with the idea of making adjustments at that time.

Councilmember Seaun Richards asked City Attorney Schrag if the Department of Ecology would see the council’s effort as an intent to move forward if they passed some — but not all — of the ordinances.

Schrag noted that the ordinances “are all intertwined and interconnected.” As a result, “the more ordinances that are not adopted put the city in a less defensible position in regards to integrating the LID principles into our ordinances,” he said. “You are becoming less and less defensible as you remove more of these provisions that are being proposed tonight.”

Councilmember Bryan Wahl said he was also conflicted about some of the ordinances, pointing in particular to those related to tree removal. The process of reviewing the ordinances made it clear that the city needs to develop a separate and comprehensive approach for protecting trees and increasing the city’s tree canopy, Wahl said.

Also during its Thursday night meeting, the council:

– Agreed to place on next week’s consent agenda approval of a professional services agreement with Otak for consulting services related to the Mountlake Terrace Link Extension light rail project. The consultant will work with the city on issues related to project design and construction, with all expenses reimbursed by Sound Transit.

– Agreed to move the date of next week’s council meeting, which was going to be on Tuesday, Jan. 3 to accommodate the Monday, Jan. 2 observed New Year’s holiday. Instead, the council will meet Wednesday, Jan. 4 to accommodate a request by Councilmember Seaun Richards, who has a Dining for Dollars fundraising event scheduled at his restaurant Tuesday night.

  1. Why do we even have a city council which supposedly represents our unique interests as a city? If the State, the Growth Management Hearings Board, the Puget Sound Regional Council and Sound Transit have control of our destiny down to which trees we can cut down and not minimum, but maximum parking spaces, what’s the point? If the city council is nothing more than a transmission mechanism for the rules of these more powerful bodies, why doesn’t the city attorney just occasionally publish their diktats and tell us what we have to do and where to send the money? And we won’t have to pretend that conflicted council members can eventually “work it out” in our favor.

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