Public weighs in on Sammamish environmental regulations

May 15, 2013

By Ari Cetron

This time, it was the people’s turn. The City Council spent the past few weeks getting briefings on the Environmentally Critical Areas Ordinance from members of the city’s planning department. On May 7, it opened the formal public hearing on the proposed changes to the law, and heard from both environmental activists and property owners.

The Environmentally Critical Areas Ordinance (the cool kids call it the ECA for short) is an umbrella term for a wide array of regulations. Taken together, they set rules for developing near wetlands, on steep slopes, in areas with soils prone to erosion, near animal migration routes and a few other topics.

The city is required to update the laws periodically, and the City Council is in the final stages of that process. The Planning Commission studied the plan for about a year before handing its draft regulations off to the council.

Many of the regulations proposed by the Planning Commission would loosen development standards and allow people to build on land which would otherwise be off limits. Virtually all speakers who supported the relaxed regulations either own property which would be able to be developed under the draft plan, or work for those who do.

Generally, they say the regulations are too restrictive and deprive them of their property rights. They suggest that many regulations were adopted decades ago, and since then, builders have found ways to work in sensitive areas without causing ecological harm.

In particular, they suggest a pilot program envisioned in the new regulations is the way to go. Under this idea, a handful of property owners in these areas would be allowed to develop their land under tight restrictions and with a system set up to monitor the environmental impacts.

“It would allow a few properties to demonstrate it can be done without issue,” said Jim Osgood. Osgood is a Sammamish resident who owns property that would be eligible to develop under the pilot program.

Other supporters, such as Larry Martin, an attorney working for someone who wants to develop, said the regulations were too tough on property owners and reduce their property’s value. He said the city should seek a less burdensome option. He continued, saying the pilot programs could be almost as effective as the current system, and yet it would still allow development.

Sam Rodebaugh, a Sammamish resident and attorney working for Osgood echoed these ideas.

“Development can be done. It can be done safely and without compromising the property rights of the owners,” he said.

On the other side were a number of residents who opposed the ideas – the pilot programs in particular. They questioned why the community should bear the risk of a degraded environment when only a few property owners will reap the benefits. And if the pilot programs turn out to fail, the damage will already be done.

“Why consider them at all?” asked Sue Campo, a Sammamish resident and former environmental science teacher at Eastlake. “How does modifying them help the community?”

Mark Cross, a former City Councilman who is an urban planner by trade, said calling the proposal a pilot program is a misnomer. Cross noted that there is not data about the state of the environment in those areas prior to development.

The lack of a baseline means that monitoring the areas after development won’t be able to show anything, since there is no baseline to which the monitoring data may be compared.

Ilene Stahl, founder of Friends of Pine Lake, said the idea of the pilot program serves little more than the wallets of a few property owners. She said that the program does not conform to the best available science, is not in the public interest and is only in the financial interest of a few.

“Only a few people will ever benefit,” Stahl said.

The council did not officially close the public hearing, so interested residents can still weigh in. Written comments can be sent until May 20. At the council’s meeting that day, they will also accept additional oral testimony. At that point, they will close the public hearing and begin their own deliberations.


Get involvedTo review the documents related to the Environmentally Critical Areas ordinance (and there are a lot of them) visit the city website, and follow the link on the left side for “Environmentally Critical Areas.”
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