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Monday, April 21, 2008

Council Amends Development Standards, Despite “Disingenuous” Objections

posted by on April 21 at 18:17 PM

So remember how the council was getting ready to raise the threshold for environmental review in the city’s urban centers?


Allow me to refresh your memory: For the past several months, the council’s Planning, Land Use, and Neighborhoods Committee (PLUNC) has been discussing legislation that would exempt a few smaller developments each year from review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). The rationale for this was that since the city set the original thresholds for environmental review, the council has passed numerous laws that do a better (and stricter) job of environmental review than SEPA. SEPA is, in effect, redundant with or weaker than a lot of existing laws. Plus, the council felt that the real issues most neighborhood activists had with new development—namely, that many new buildings are ugly and don’t fit in with their neighborhoods—would better be addressed through design review (which actually looks at aesthetics and neighborhood “fit”) than through environmental review (which doesn’t.)

But anti-growth zealots never let the facts get in the way of a good two minutes of public testimony, and so, true to form, there was Chris Leman, the Seattle Neighborhood Council chair and a ubiquitous presence in council chambers. Glaring balefully at the council, Leman accused council members of telling neighborhoods that have “accepted” growth or light-rail stations that “you’re going to change the rules on them. You didn’t warn them about this. You still haven’t warned them! … Most of them don’t even know that they live in these boundaries where they’re going to have second-class citizenship.” Council members, Leman continued, “just cannot pass this today—especially during Earth Week… This is a terrible setback to citizen rights and the environment.”

Lest you think these are merely the ravings of a lone growth opponent, check out the Seattle Times’ story about the vote, which picks up Leman’s thread that the change will “encourage development” by “easing environmental reviews.” (Editorial decrying the changes in 3… 2…) “The changes would require fewer projects to pass environmental review,” the Times story continues. Sure — about 2 dozen fewer projects a year, and only in the city’s six designated urban centers (the densest areas of the city). The projects would still be subject to design review—a process that actually gets at what anti-density activists like Leman are concerned about. In fact, the council will look at expanding the number of projects that are subject to design review later this year— a fact that can’t have slipped beneath the radar of Leman or the city hall reporter for the Seattle Times, especially since council members mentioned it several times during their discussion.

Council members also had harsh words for Leman.

“There was the case made that this is Earth Week,” said PLUNC chair Sally Clark. “Looking at the urban centers and trying to do smart development in the urban centers and recognizing that Seattle [has done] a good job of modernizing and bringing its code to a sophisticated level is consistent with growth management. If I felt that this was truly decreasing a neighborhood’s ability to affect development in their community, or if it was truly stripping back environmental review, there is no way I’d be supporting it.”

Tim Burgess—who recently called Leman’s arguments against legislation requiring lobbyists to register with the city “ludicrous“—followed up on Clark’s comments, saying that Leman and his ilk were trying to sway the council and their fellow citizens with “disinformation and disingenuous comments” about the proposal. Burgess pointed out that the council has been discussing the changes since September 2007, and has had half a dozen public meetings about the proposal since that initial meeting. “There has been very adequate public discussion of this matter going back into last year,” Burgess said. “These changes are reasonable, they do not take away the environmental protections and environmental reviews that some have suggested [they do], and to suggest that is disingenuous.”

Despite the fact that it was indeed Earth Week, the legislation passed.

RSS icon Comments


I know that in your world all development is good because it fosters (cue organ music) DENSITY, but...
Not all neighborhood fights with developers are NIMBY exercises. Some projects are bad, projects with no rationale but profit for the developer.
Your argument is premised on the idea that Design Review is a fair process in which legitimate neighborhood gripes can be heard and shape projects toward neighborhood needs.
Nothing could be further from the truth. My experience with the DR process on the Dearborn/Goodwill mall project is that it is a chummy club of architects, developers and design wonks, who steamroll independent voices. Developers hold all of the cards: they get unlimited time to extoll the wonderfulness of their projects, civilians get 10-15 minutes at best, and are then told that their complaints are irrelevant.

Posted by suren~o | April 21, 2008 6:39 PM

Do you bore yourself Erica?

I mean, after furiously rubbing on your dried up shriveled clit at night, do you pour over government documents and listen to city council meeting streamed over your IPod.

Jesus, you lead a boring life.

Posted by ecce homo | April 21, 2008 6:40 PM

I know the Stranger doesn't do nuance when it comes to land use, but I thought maybe you ought to consider the comments from one of your Capitol Hill neighbors that was forwarded to me anyway.

It's far more disingenuous to effectively remove SEPA review from many projects in the name of "streamlining" the code than it is to point out that most of the public has no idea than it is happening.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and there are few things that Stranger writers know less about than the history and context of land use.

(quote follows - you can check with Tim Burgess on who wrote it if you'd like to call the thoughtful person who wrote this a NIMBY by name).

April 21. 2008

Dear Members of the Planning, Land Use, and Neighborhoods Committee

We were informed over the weekend that the City Council's Planning, Land Use, and Neighborhoods Committee (PLUNC) will meet today to entertain very limited public discussion before voting on an initiative sponsored by DPD (Council Bill 116010) which would dramatically depreciate and undermine the City’s SEPA ordinance.

We note that the existing ordinance was established as a vehicle to implement the State’s Environmental Policy Act. This ordinance has been crucial for our North Capital Hill neighborhood in its effort to influence the commercial development of this urban residential community of nearly 1000 homes. Anything that would depreciate the scope or the overall purview of this ordinance is considered unwarranted and a detriment to effective and purposeful planning and development. We are soliciting your support to reject this initiative outright and that you support a vote today that will provide for greater neighbor input and informed debate.

The potential for a SEPA appeal is a critical component available to impacted neighborhoods to obtain improvements and or mitigation of environmental impacts of a proposed land use or building project. Over the last five years our neighborhood has been deeply involved in the development requests from two large private schools (Bertschi and Seattle Prep) that are nested in the center of our otherwise residential neighborhood. The commercial footprint and environmental impacts related to transportation, parking, noise, depreciation of property values, issues surrounding public safety and loss of multi-family housing associated with the expansion plans of there two institutions in this community cannot be understated. Without the provisions of the existing SEPA ordinance the developers for these two institutions would have been able easily bypassed our neighborhood’s concerns all together. There would have been no public notice, as now required by SEPA and the existing City ordinance, and DPD’s self-contained project review protocol would not have afforded the level of public debate and environmental review that has lead to a broad spectrum of project features that were incorporated to mitigate the impacts of each of these expansion projects.

This proposed change is particularly bothersome as it would raise thresholds in urban centers such as North Capital Hill that are most likely to have the most construction. The SEPA and the City’s Neighborhood Plans are supposed to empower people, not take away their rights. Under this proposed action the neighborhoods that did their plans are being punished, and the resulting growth will disrespect democracy and livability alike.

DPD maintains that the design review process is an adequate substitute for SEPA protections. Nothing could be further from the truth. Design review leaves largely unaddressed such SEPA issues as traffic and parking, commercial noise, bulk and scale of existing and new projects, public safety, and congestion and the accumulative effects on urban density. Our involvement with the Bertschi School’s master use project and Seattle Prep’s expansion project are classic examples that speak directly to the need to maintain the current SEPA provisions to include the SEPA Checklist. Our appeal of the Bertschi project to the Hearing Examiner resulted in significant changes to DPD's initial approval to the institutions master use plan. Further appeals of the Hearing Examiner’s ruling have been successful in advancing our case to the Washington Supreme Court. This appeal is presently awaiting the assignment of a hearing date. None of this would have been possible under the proposed amendments advanced by DPD.

In a city which has long been proud of the notice provided citizens to comment and participate in development and environmental decisions which impact our quality of life, this proposal would gut notice to the public for major projects. Calling a project “minor” because it has 30 units (and 80 downtown) or 12,000 square feet in a neighborhood center does not eliminate the impact on our environment and quality of life. For the City to weaken SEPA protections seems incongruent with the law and the principles of public policy. There is simply no merit to raising the thresholds for this critical component of the planning process.

We urge that the Planning, Land Use, and Neighborhoods Committee not take a vote on this issue today but and the you and the other Committee members pursue additional review of this DPD sponsored alteration of an extremely important and sensitive public policy. It is recommended that the Committee pursue further public discussion and debate on this subject and that consider holding two panel discussions on the issue--one panel with attorneys who represent different sides of the issue; and another panel that includes both neighborhood leaders and developers. At this time the only forum for comment is the two minutes per person at the very beginning of today’s meeting—barely an hour before your committee takes up the issue. We strongly believe that is totally inadequate for the in-depth discussion that this topic deserves, and cannot make up for the failure of DPD and the Council staff to provide the City Council the information that it needs before acting on these controversial proposals. This is one issue that deserves further review and comment form the neighborhoods which will be impacted for comment, if it is to proceed in any form.

We solicit your leadership and your support to table this proposed initiative or better yet too simply remove it from any further consideration. Thank you once again for you for your understanding and consideration."

Yup, real disingenuous, that.

Posted by Mr. X | April 21, 2008 6:41 PM

...and another.

"Dear Council Members:

I am astounded and saddened that the City Council would even consider Council Bill 116010, recommended by DPD, which would essentially eliminate SEPA protections for key portions of our city by attempting to change threshold determinations for “significant impacts”.

In a city which has long been proud of the notice provided citizens to comment and participate in development and environmental decisions which impact our quality of life, this proposal would gut notice to the public for major projects. Calling a project “minor” because it has 30 units (and 80 downtown) or 12,000 square feet in a neighborhood center does not eliminate the impact on our environment and quality of life.

If a given project’s reasonably foreseeable impacts are truly “minor” then a threshold determination under SEPA will document that the impacts are minor. There is no need to create a broad categorical exemption. Further, current law provides for the public to be notified of a proposed determination that the project’s impacts are minor. This has often led to important public comments that documented the impacts were serious. This opportunity will be eliminated by the proposed changes. If a project’s impacts are, indeed, minor, then the project will proceed.

Threshold determinations are good public policy with participation, and they serve our city’s growth needs admirably. There is no need for the proposed change.

Many of the proposals which fall into this proposed categorical exemption will have potential significant impacts, particularly cumulative impacts, on storm water runoff, tree retention and canopy cover, meeting open space and other development goals… Eliminating notice (i.e., notice boards) and eliminating the threshold determination eliminates the opportunity for our City to protect its environment and meet our global warming, Puget Sound and creek cleanup, transit and development goals.

As far as efficiency is concerned, this proposal appears to invite challenge under the GMA and SEPA. That will not gain any efficiency.

Just as this proposal would eliminate notice to the public of proposed projects, the Council is poised to act without providing proper notice of this proposal and scheduled action. Your notice failed to describe to any interested citizen what the proposal would do and how it impacts public interests. This is one issue that you need to take back out to the neighborhoods which will be impacted for comment, if it is to proceed in any form.

I would like to hear from each of you in regard to each of the concerns raised above.


Posted by Mr. X | April 21, 2008 6:45 PM

...and another.

"Honorable Councilmembers,

I am saddened, but I must say not surprised, to see that you are considering C.B.Council Bill 116010 to exempt projects in Urban Centers from SEPA. To hear supporters of this proposal tell it, no one is building new construction in Seattle due to these terrible, onerous environmental requirements. Of course, this assertion flies in the face of the largest building boom our City has probably ever seen, but we shouldn't let those facts get in the way of granting every last item on the development community's wish list, now should we?

Frankly, I don't think the Council has the faintest idea what will occur in terms of unintended consequences should this legislation be adopted. As it stands, what Seattle needs is better enforcement of existing SEPA and design standards, which are being undermined at every turn, rather than the abandonment of a long-standing regulatory framework that has - when it functions properly - served our City and citizens well. There is a long and sorry history of DPD advocating for changes to "streamline" the code that instead fundamentally alter it, and that result in serious negative outcomes that even DPD ultimately has to acknowledge bear no resemblance to what they predicted would occur.

Please reject this unnecessary and ill-considered legislation.


Posted by Mr. X | April 21, 2008 6:46 PM

#3, I do not find that to be a convincing argument. He or she fails to mention any specifics, and seems to be bemoaning a loss of control/power for the sake of control/power rather than explaining what specifically about the legislation would be so harmful to neighborhoods.

The anecdote of the schools is interesting, but what about the master plan did citizens suggest changes to? If I were a council member I would need way more evidence before being convinced that this is a bad idea.

Posted by Cale | April 21, 2008 6:59 PM

When was Chris Leman elected to the Council, again? These three letter-writers, when were they elected?

Posted by Fnarf | April 21, 2008 7:00 PM

Again, a much stronger argument would be to site a specific example where the SEPA has been essential to stopping bad development.

These are snarky and off-putting.

Posted by Cale | April 21, 2008 7:03 PM

OTOH, here's a statement from CM Clark from today's Seattle Times that most definitely is disingenuous.

"The goal of this is to recognize that Seattle has pretty sophisticated codes in place that other smaller jurisdictions may not have" in the state, she said. City code, for example, requires developers to build sidewalks, provide drainage, protect view corridors and set noise limits."

Every jurisdiction of just about any size has many if not all of these codes in place, and you don't see them running around gutting SEPA (well, yet). Just how small a jurisdiction is CM Clark implying here - Acme? And it's doubly disingenuous to cite view protection to support her argument, as the City essentially doesn't have any for private views.

Moreover, Greg Nickels is cited in the same article as supporting these changes to make things for developers, so can we please not pretend that Design Review is going to somehow magically deal with SEPA drainage issues, among other things?

Posted by Mr. X | April 21, 2008 7:05 PM

The unsurprising details of small stories turned into large disapointments continues to fill the annuals of everyday life.

Like a dead bird next to the bike trail, words promised in speeches and pledges fall upon ears of people eager to fill their own place in time with reminders and hallmarks of testimony and achievments mandated in vain.

Lazy eyed reprisals wail in understandable consuption of energy as elected officials and political asassins sign on the line with greedy hearts and cold dead hands.

You can find this kind of treachery throughtout mankinds sad demise...

where-ever we really came from seldoms matters at this point.....

and right now it's hard to find a shred of evidence to the contrary.

Men and women build destruction only to build substitutes for death in idle zoning restrictions, misintepreted diagrams to deep in the plan to halt production, or even awards presented as reparations for unification monuments designed to eliveate our hubris from the disconnect of our actions.

I have said of late that God is on vacation.

Not here.


Don't hang a sign or worry about the spelling on the eviction notice or the indicators on the directive clauses.

I could be taliking now about your perspective, your admission your dissent or agreement and it would not matter because the deed is done...

and we have been found responsible for everything we have said and everything we will never accomplish in purity or forgiveness.

And this is why.... I didn't read the script it's true... the story or the details of this posts host.

As per usual I am using it as a vehicle to tell another portion of the same story.

I just walked past another small piece of evidence as to why we are all in the hellish portion of this planets foundation.

Yes I know some will say this is an extravagant preamble to self servitude and that as I write this I too committed my judas-isms freely and sold my swearing tounge for a gift of sweet chocolate.

How long ago did our tribe of individualism and lust for imprisonment trade the better part of life for a new house or car or boat or greater view of the mountains?

Hey... I'm a white guy for goodness sake.

I know what I'm saying and I just saw the saddest thing in the world.

Right next to the First Methodist Church in downtown Seattle...

....where I had temporarily suspended dis-belief of the arrogance of this selfish corner of the globe.....

...a really beautiful tree has disapeared.

Posted by danielbennettkieneker | April 21, 2008 7:18 PM


Leman was just re-elected as Chair of the City Neighborhood Council, which is comprised of (usually, as I understand it) the Chairs of the District Council, who are generally elected by the other members of their local District Council, who are usually members of community organizations that generally have elected leadership.

As to the letter writers, since when does any citizen have to be elected to anything to comment to their local officials?

Posted by Mr. X | April 21, 2008 7:21 PM

a bit knee jerk, duh, fanrf

who is sleeping with whom - always the question

of course haste in all things IS the council motto, isn't it? no time, no time - can't you hear it from the council at meetings to shut down all hearings and discussion

developers and builders donate mucho $$$$ - remember the word donate - explains much, much

Posted by Larkin | April 21, 2008 7:55 PM

I am a neighborhood activist and I support density.

The current SEPA rules have no impact on the design issues that neighbors have an issue with. They are simply a tool for anti-density folks to increase housing costs by dragging out the development process in an attempt to cause a developer to cower and hault a project.

Changes to the Multifamily Code ( will have positive impact on design issues that neighborhoods have concern with.

Give Council a chance, they really are trying to do the right thing.

Posted by SEPA is a blunt tool | April 21, 2008 9:23 PM

I am a neighborhood activist and I support density.

The current SEPA rules have no impact on the design issues that neighbors have an issue with. They are simply a tool for anti-density folks to increase housing costs by dragging out the development process in an attempt to cause a developer to cower and hault a project.

Changes to the Multifamily Code ( will have positive impact on design issues that neighborhoods have concern with.

Give Council a chance, they really are trying to do the right thing.

Posted by SEPA is a blunt tool | April 21, 2008 9:24 PM

Oh ecce, ever the charmer, aren't you?

One can only imagine the sorts of things YOU do while reading Erica's postings, but I like to think it involves a broken neon light tube, a generous length of #10 zip-cord, a speculum, and a dozen car batteries wired in series.

Posted by COMTE | April 21, 2008 9:24 PM


This is very very very boring and stupid.

Posted by ecce homo | April 21, 2008 9:26 PM

Chris Leman is a class A asshole and is clearly mentally ill! The Council should be ashamed that they give the guy so much power. The CNC is stupid and irrelevant.

Posted by Not A NIMBY | April 21, 2008 9:59 PM

Mr. X = Chris Leman

Posted by Putting it all together | April 21, 2008 10:01 PM

@15, is there a muppet costume involved too?

Posted by PopTart | April 21, 2008 10:06 PM



...and the proposed Multifamily Code changes cited @ 14 will make the current situation much, much worse - not better.

@14 is also wrong in asserting that Design Review has much at all to do with the objections many neighbors have with new development in their communities (which, I would add - many of them supported during the neighborhood planning process provided adequate land use controls were instituted) - they're more concerned with the elimination of parking requirements and reduction in open space and setback requirements than they are with what kind of cladding gets slapped onto the side of some generic new built-to-the-lotline box. You know, the stuff the City promised it wouldn't undermine when significant new density was permitted, yet which it is constantly actively trying to water down and/or eliminate under the guise of "streamlining the code" and other such builder-speak.

Poster #1 hit the nail on the head with regard to the actual utility of Design Review for citizens. DR also doesn't have the same force of law that the Land Use Code provisions that it replaced did. In fact, that is essentially what happened again today - legally binding SEPA environmental project reviews have given way to fuzzy and unenforceable Design Review guidelines.

And while much of what the CNC does is certainly deadly dull, it isn't stupid.

Posted by Mr. X | April 21, 2008 11:04 PM

#20 - I said "design" not "Design Review".

Posted by SEPA is a blunt tool | April 22, 2008 7:21 AM

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