Sammamish City Council finalizes environmental regulations update

July 17, 2013

By Ari Cetron

Emotions ranged from disgust to resigned acceptance as the City Council took its final action on the Environmentally Critical Areas Ordinance July 9. The council approved the broad set of regulations on a 5-2 vote with Councilman Don Gerend and Councilwoman Nancy Whitten opposed, albeit for opposite reasons.

The city has been studying the sometimes contentious regulations for more than two years. The ordinance contains a package of regulations governing development near an array of different ecologically sensitive areas including streams, wetlands, steep slopes, wildlife corridors and more.

The Planning Commission had reviewed the regulations before sending them to the council for a final decision. During that period, lines were drawn that came to shape the debate, the rights of property owners to develop their land versus the impacts to the environment and nearby areas.

In the end, neither of those sides can really claim a clean “victory” said most of the councilmembers.

“There’s a whole bunch in here I don’t like,” said Mayor Tom Odell, who generally sided with protecting the environment. “There’s a bunch I do like.”

Councilman John James, a vocal supporter of property rights, had similar sentiments. James called the overall ordinance a compromise. He, too, said the ordinance wasn’t exactly what he would have liked, but he said the result wasn’t bad.

“I think I can live with the fact that it’s better than it was before,” James said.

Others were more blunt in their willingness to support what they said was a flawed bill.

“I hope the mayor doesn’t ask for a show of hands because I’ll need one of them to hold my nose,” said Councilman John Curley.

Gerend, however, said it was too much. Another member of the property rights wing, he declared himself “disgusted” with the end result. He said the council ignored scientific studies and focused on the wrong issues before voting against it.

Whitten said she thought the process started off on the wrong foot when the Planning Commission chose to weigh property rights against the environment in their analysis. She said the ordinance gave too much to property owners over the environment, and she opposed the measure for the opposite reasons Gerend did.

 

Pilot programs

One of the most controversial topics, a pilot program to allow development in areas where it is currently forbidden again took center stage at the July 9 meeting. Previously on a series of 4-3 votes, the program had been permitted, then severely restricted.

James and Gerend, who both work in real estate, said the restrictions were such that no one would have actually made use of it. Both were on the losing end of many of the 4-3 votes implementing the restrictions at the council’s July 2 meeting.

At the July 9 meeting, the block of councilmembers, including Whitten, Tom Vance and Deputy Mayor Ramiro Valderrama, who had created the restrictions, proposed loosening them a bit. They determined some of the restrictions they’d previously considered, such as forcing the property owners to indemnify the city and other nearby property owners indefinitely wouldn’t work.

“Indemnification is unrealistic and possibly illegal,” Valderrama said.

Instead, the developers will need to indemnify the city and others for five years.

Others, such as ensuring the property could weather a 200-year storm (a storm so severe its only seen once every 200 years) were unworkable because no statistics exist for such a storm. Instead, the city will use a 100-year storm as the standard.

They also removed a provision restricting development in the areas to one house per acre.

Vance and Whitten said that, while they don’t like the idea of a pilot program at all, they realized that if the city is going to do one, it should be workable, while erring on the side of extra protections of the environment.

James, who had opposed the restrictions, recognized what he called an “olive branch” and supported loosening the restrictions. He said the new plan wasn’t perfect, but was better.

Only Odell opposed loosening the restrictions. He’d argued in favor of stricter regulations, in particular of stormwater.

Gerend then proposed a few ideas, which would have loosened the restrictions further, but they failed on a 4-3 vote. Gerend, James and Curley supported the looser restrictions.

Some elements of the program will need approval from the state before they can be implemented. Once the state signs off, the pilot program will be in place for two years.

 

Other issues

After the pilot program discussions, the council moved quickly through a series of recommendations made by the state and citizens.

Some of the state’s ideas, such as technical changes to the positioning of certain sections of the ordinance, the council accepted. Others, such as acknowledging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as having jurisdiction over determining what is a wetland (something fairly typical in other parts of the country) the council opted not to implement.

The council did not adopt any of the citizen recommendations, although one came close. A proposal that would have reduced the amount of discretion city staff has in some decisions failed on a 4-3 vote. James, Curley and Valderrama supported reducing the staff discretion. They said it would give citizens more clarity in what to expect from the law.

Community Development Director Kamuron Gurol, who would have seen some of his powers reduced if it had passed, argued against the idea.

He said that it wasn’t that he or future directors crave the power, but that often, the flexibility allows them to make adjustments to regulations when they go against common sense.

“You do pay us because we have brains between our ears,” Gurol said.

In accordance with state law, the city will need to review the ordinance periodically to ensure it still conforms to the best available science. The review will likely happen in seven-10 years.

 

Reach Editor Ari Cetron at 392-6434, est. 233, or samrev@isspress.com.

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