Some on Sammamish City Council don’t like proposed environmental regs
March 13, 2013
By Ari Cetron
New: March 13, 11:16 a.m.
A year of work may not have been enough. The Sammamish Planning Commission just presented the City Council with a package of updated environmental regulations, but at least one councilmember opposed many of the proposals wholesale.
“I think the process was fatally flawed,” said Councilwoman Nancy Whitten.
The regulations, known as the Environmentally Critical Areas update, govern how development can take place in sensitive areas, such as steep slopes or near streams and wetlands.
About three-fourths of the city falls under one part of the regulations or another. For most homeowners, however, there is little or no direct impact to their properties. They might come into play if a person wants to enlarge their home or build a large shed, but generally, the rules will apply to new construction.
The Planning Commission has been studying the package of proposed regulations for more than a year. They developed regulations that often allow “flexibility” when building.
The “flexibility” can take many forms but generally will allow the property owners ways around a strict interpretation of environmental regulations.
Whitten blasted the very concept. The ordinance, she said, exists to protect the environment.
She said that the city needed to be sure the regulations weren’t so restrictive that they amounted to taking a person’s property, but that would not be difficult.
The proposals, she said went too far to protect property rights over the environment.
“All the controversial issues are pro-property rights. They’re not pro-environment,” Whitten said.
Councilman Tom Vance echoed Whitten’s comments.
“We don’t want to see, through this process, a lowering of standards,” Vance said.
Councilman Don Gerend rejected Whitten’s argument. He said that some of the existing regulations may not actually help the environment in the way they are designed to, anyway. He also said regulations should find ways to allow development without harming the environment.
Deputy Mayor Ramiro Valderrama and Councilman John Curley agreed more with Gerend’s take.
Both said that it is important to protect the environment, but that flexibility is important to balance that protection with property rights.
Mayor Tom Odell said he sees aspects to the proposed ordinan-ces he likes and others he doesn’t like. In the end, however, he said he is more likely to come down on the side of the environment.
“We’re supposed to make this place better,” he said.
Pay for the problem
The City Council dove into the specifics of the regulations with a discussion of so-called “fee in lieu mitigation.”
In some situations, a person may want to build a home on a property that is covered by, for example, stream buffers. When that happens, they must first find the place on the property where the new construction would have the least impact. Still, they must find a way to reduce the impact they are having on the nearby stream.
In some cases, the would-be homeowner may not be able to sufficiently reduce that impact enough to meet environmental standards. In these cases, the property owner may be permitted to pay a fee to make up for the work they can’t do.
Evan Maxim, senior planner for Sammamish, estimated this situation would be rare. Even in those cases, he predicted the city would require a fee in the tens of thousands of dollars.
“This is not cheap and easy,” Maxim said.
Whitten was not enamored of the idea. She noted that the commission predicted it would have a negative environmental impact. She was particularly concerned that large developments might be able to make use of the program to build on lots they normally couldn’t.
She asked that the regulations specify they could only be used on single developments, not to subdivisions.
Even if it is just single houses, Whitten fears the cumulative impacts of many of these would end up being high.
She said the city should study if there might be areas so sensitive that they would not allow program there.
In the final, noncontroversial item of discussion, the council heard about a proposal for wetland ratios.
In cases where a development disturbs a wetland, the proposal lays out exactly how much a developer would be expected to restore.
The new plan makes clearer what is expected.
The council will continue to study the ordinance in study sessions over the next few months before it holds a public hearing.
Reach Editor Ari Cetron at 392-6434, ext. 233, or firstname.lastname@example.org.