Heated arguments as council debates environmental regulations

July 8, 2013

By Ari Cetron

Tempers flared as City Councilmembers became visibly frustrated and one citizen was ejected from the council chambers during the council’s July 2 meeting about the Environmentally Critical Areas Ordinance.

Touching off the heated night was a surprise proposal by Councilmembers Tom Vance, Nancy Whitten and Ramiro Valderrama to restrict drastically a pilot program, which would allow landowners to build in areas now off limits.

The new restrictions in that proposal are so severe, that Councilman Don Gerend, who works in real estate, said the program is effectively dead.

“There isn’t going to be a pilot program after this,” he said.

Councilman John James was so upset by the proposals and the way the meeting was being handled that he simply stopped voting – he didn’t formally abstain. He just didn’t say anything.

The debate saw Valderrama become the Anthony Kennedy of the Sammamish City Council when it comes to the Environmentally Critical Areas ordinance. Kennedy, the moderate U.S. Supreme Court Justice often finds himself the fifth vote when the court is split 5-4 on controversial issues.

Valderrama for the past two meetings has been the fourth vote when the council was split 4-3.

At the council’s June 11 meeting, the 4-3 vote established there would be a pilot program. At the July 2 meeting, the parameters of the program were put into place, again on a 4-3 vote. This time, however, Valderrama sided with the councilmembers who had been opposed to the existence of the program, voting to implement the restrictions. (see sidebar)

The pilot program has been among the most controversial topics of the Environmentally Critically Areas ordinance. The ordinance is an umbrella term for a set of regulations governing development regulations near sensitive locations, such as lakes, streams, wildlife corridors and areas which may be prone to erosion.

The erosion hazard area is the focus of the pilot programs, although there are other programs in place for areas near wetlands. In essence, development in the erosion hazard area has been forbidden. The rationale is that the areas are too dangerous to build on because there is a chance that such development could cause serious problems, not only for the people living on the areas, but also for people living under them if the erosion were to cause landslides.

Some property owners in that area say that modern development techniques eliminate those risks. They say they have found a package of ways to build that will allow development without damaging the sensitive areas.

Both sides presented dueling scientific evidence supporting their position.

The pilot program was supposed to test theory by permitting a limited number of developments and measuring the impacts.


New plan

As the debate began, lines quickly formed with Whitten, Vance, Valderrama and Mayor Tom Odell supporting the tighter restrictions. Gerend, James and Councilman John Curley were generally opposed.

Moments after it was introduced, Gerend proposed removing a number of the restrictions as a group. That idea was defeated 4-3. Soon after that, James wanted to remove one of them, which had been a part of Gerend’s proposal.

Odell ruled that the council had already voted on that measure and refused to entertain the idea.

Opponents of the restrictions said repeatedly the new restrictions will kill the plan by restricting development in the area too much.

After a series of 4-3 votes, property owner Jim Osgood stood up and began shouting at the council. Osgood owns land that was likely to have been included in the pilot program, but the new restrictions would likely limit his options.

“You killed it!” he said. “Especially you (councilman) Ramiro (Valderrama)! Shame on you!”

Osgood said he planned to leave as he stood and began to yell. Odell then asked him to remove himself from the council chambers.

Curley said that the restrictions showed a council afraid to allow the programs and making their decisions based on fear.

“That’s not leadership,” Curley said.

He further criticized the series of votes which he and James said showed a lack of willingness to compromise.

“There’s no hope for a middle ground,” said James.

“It was absurd,” Curley said. “It was like a German play.”

Supporters noted that currently, landowners can’t develop at all, so even with the restrictions, they will now be able to build where they couldn’t previously.

They say this program isn’t tailored to simply allow a few property owners to develop, something councilmembers had criticized about the original pilot program.

This version, Valderrama said, will give the city better information about the viability of the development techniques.

“This is a better scale to be able to measure,” Valderrama said.

“If we were really afraid, we wouldn’t be doing it at all,” agreed Odell.

The council is far from done with its deliberations about the ordinance. They plan to discuss it at the council’s July 9 meeting, and may need to schedule a special meeting if they don’t complete deliberations then. After they finish, city staff must develop the formal language that will go into the city code, and the council will need to take a final vote at its July 15 meeting.


The restrictions

One of the biggest restrictions in the new pilot program is that property owners will be permitted to build at a level of one house per acre. So, for example, a property in the restricted area zoned for up to four houses per acre, under this program, would be able to build at one-fourth that level. The new restrictions also only allow 2-4 pilot programs – two each using two different proposed methods of development. The original proposal was to allow up to nine properties to be developed under the program.

The proposals also call for a host of technical restrictions which would limit the amount of water that can flow off of the property and the amount of land disturbed on the property.

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One Response to “Heated arguments as council debates environmental regulations”

  1. Ken Glick (EEI) on July 10th, 2013 12:02 pm

    What happened at the Sammamish City Council meeting is not unusual. There have been several incidents in Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania where arguments about environmental regulations involving building in “open spaces” have resulted in heated arguments and even expulsion of audience members.

    Ah, democracy.

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