Greenwashing (a compound word modeled on “whitewash”), or “green sheen,” is a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization’s products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly.–Wikipedia.
Since the 2003 Sammamish City Council election, in which environmental-leaning candidates swept the election, the Council prided itself on pursuing “green” policies and ordinances.
The City Manager was far less gun-ho, often lagging his own staff, especially when it came to a concept called Low Impact Development, or LID (not to be confused with Local Improvement Districts, also LID, a special tax option–so context of “LID” is always important to understand).
The current Council is comprised of what would ordinarily considered to be environmentalists. Of the seven, only Member Don Gerend leans “development” over the environment–or so its appears. Tom Odell and Bob Keller proved to have strong environmental credentials. Ramiro Valderrama evolved into a strong backing of the environment. Deputy Mayor Kathy Huckabay and Mayor Tom Vance not only consider themselves environmentalists but have an historical track record supporting this.
Without question the leading environmentalist on the Council is three-term incumbent Nancy Whitten, who decided to retire at the end of this year. And Whitten has been increasingly critical of the collective Council’s direction on a number of environmental issues over the past four years.
While “greenwashing” isn’t the term that comes to the top of the conversation with Whitten, she didn’t disagree with its use when it comes to how Sammamish approaches the environment now. And she’s especially critical of Vance’s evolution away from his historical green leanings.
Whitten, in an interview with Sammamish Comment, cited the follow as the top-of-mind concerns:
- The rewrite of the Comprehensive Plan
- The Tree ordinance
- Storm water drainage in the Town Center
- Variances and exemptions
The Comprehensive Plan
Cities and counties are required by State law to update the Comprehensive Plan regularly and undergo a major rewrite at set intervals. Sammamish adopted its first Com Plan in 2003. Council Member Bob Keller was then on the Planning Advisory Board that wrote the Comp Plan. Members Huckabay and Gerend were on the City Council that adopted the Plan. Whitten joined the Council the in 2004.
Sammamish began rewriting the Comp Plan last year, working toward a deadline this summer to adopt the new Plan. However, it is not unusual for jurisdictions to miss the State-imposed deadline and extensions are routinely granted if good-faith efforts and progress are made toward meeting the deadline. Sammamish fell into this category.
The first draft of the new Comp Plan met with strong opposition on the Council. Whitten, Odell and Keller didn’t like removal of or changes in many of the policies outlined in the original Comp Plan. Gerend objected to many policies as too restrictive. He also objected to retention of wildlife corridors from the original Comp Plan, long an issue for him because Sammamish is a suburb and in his view wildlife corridors are inappropriate. Huckabay, on the other hand, wanted inserted into the new Comp Plan pollination corridors. Vance, true to his nature, said little, except to push for early adoption.
In a rare revolt of the ruling majority, two members of the so-called Gang of 4 split with Vance and Huckabay. Odell and Keller joined with minority members Valderrama, Gerend and Whitten in demanding detailed review by the Council. Whitten suggested that small Council committees be created to coordinate review, create suggestions and forward them to the whole Council for consideration. Vance, she said, rejected this approach, sometimes resulting in three suggestions over one item and prolonging the process.
“Everyone said we had major flaws, but I didn’t know how to fix it because I was in the minority,” Whitten told Sammamish Comment. “I suggested small committees.” other Council Members wanted to take time to review the hundreds of pages of materials and the draft Comp Plan. Vance and Huckabay wanted to push ahead for approval.
“[Vance’s] defense was we had to get it done and his stance as mayor was he had to push the process,” Whitten said. Indeed, while City officials wanted to go slow on annexing the Klahanie area, Vance and Huckabay wanted to approve the Comp Plan at the July 21 meeting before the Council’s August recess.
Whitten’s primary objection: all references to the sensitive lakes in Sammamish, and particularly Beaver and Pine lakes, were eliminated in the rewritten Comp Plan from the original. “Significant references” to erosion and slide hazard overlays along the western slopes of Sammamish were also gone, she said.
Whitten credited staff member Emily Arteche with reaching out to her after Whitten objected. Whitten invited Keller and Odell to meet with her and Arteche to address the issues. Keller agreed, and a solution was found to reinsert language in the new Comp Plan. Whitten credited Keller for his role in resolving the issue.
It wasn’t the first time Keller stepped up on environmental issues. When the Planning
Advisory Board was writing the first Comp Plan, staffer David Sawyer presented a proposed environmental policy section for the Plan that was just 1 3/4 pages long. A small group of PAB members rebeled. Keller led the rogue committee to recommend adoption of the lengthy King County environmental policies, tailored to Sammamish. This was what was emasculated in the rewrite.
“Throughout this whole thing, I kept asking for extensions,” Whitten said, “even right up to the night before.” Whitten said the Council received a 250 page final draft of the revised Comp Plan by email on the Monday of the scheduled Committee of the Whole meeting with a second reading of the ordinance adopting the Comp Plan scheduled for the next night. Despite objections from five of the seven Council Members, Vance and Deputy Mayor Huckabay scheduled the vote.
But when Huckabay made the motion to adopt the Comp Plan, she failed to get a second; even Vance remained mum.
Whitten leveled a blast at the Vance-Huckabay leadership during Council reports at the end of the meeting. Despite five Council Members asking for extensions, she complained, the leadership tried to force a vote a day after dropping a 250 page “final” draft on them.
Approval was set over to this month to allow for more time for revisions.
The Tree Ordinance
In 2014, development that stalled during the Great Recession resumed with a vengeance, Trees began disappearing as lots were cleared to make way for new homes. Forested areas suddenly were bared. Two areas in particular were shocks: an area on both sides of Inglewood Hill Road between the roundabout and East Lake Sammamish Parkway; and what was known as the Kamp property on 228th Ave. SE at SE 20th.
Several other projects that were clear cut caused an uproar over the then-existing tree retention ordinance that called for saving 25% of the trees on properties. Penalties, however, were small and developers viewed fines as merely the cost of doing business, not a deterrent.
The City Council passed an emergency tree retention ordinance in December 2014, but it was too little, too late. Valderrama pointed out that neither the City nor King County paid attention to the removal of what he termed up to 1,000 or more trees in the development of the East Lake Sammamish Trail, a County project within the City limits.
Nor does the emergency ordinance apply to any project for which applications already were filed: these were “vested” to the ordinances in place at the time of the applications. With development now largely confined to in-fill and some remaining land in sensitive areas, the emergency ordinance has little affect on quantity of future development.
Also ignored for the emergency ordinance: a suggestion that egregious violations be subject to a potential penalty of a stop work order for six months. Nor did this survive through the Planning Commission review and draft of the permanent ordinance discussed at the City Council meeting September 1.
Whitten objected to plans to have this ordinance approved at the September 1 meeting. Vance wanted to push ahead, with Vance characterizing the new tree ordinance as “it’s not the Comp Plan.”
At last week’s City Council meeting and hearing on the permanent tree ordinance, Deputy Mayor Huckabay mentioned that the poor and shallow soil left by big development is one of the reasons large trees are coming down in windstorms. She’s right about this. But it’s also the City that is allowing this type of development to continue when it has ordinances and regulations to change it.
In traditional development, all of the trees come down and top soil is graded off. Some of it is redistributed in the building site (and regulations today require that it is), but what’s left is tightly compacted by large equipment and the rest is hauled away. Once the buildings are complete, only a relatively thin layer of topsoil is spread on the surface and landscaping is planted. The problem with this is that there’s too little good soil for the new landscaping to extend their roots and be viable in the long term. Roots can’t grow and penetrate this compacted soil and water can’t always perk back into the ground.
Sometimes water just sits on this top layer without perking or draining. Landscaping has been known to “drown” in the stagnant surface water. The hydrogeology of the soil and the site has been permanently altered and largely destroyed. Rain and stormwater now gets collected from the surface streets and rooftops, warmed and polluted, and piped to R & D ponds. There is nothing about this style of building and developing that in any way returns the site to a pre-development water handling system. And here’s the part about the trees – they stabilize the existing soil, take up huge amounts of water each day, as well has hold rain in the leaves and needles to slowly fall or evaporate. It’s natures water handling system.
There is a better way of building and developing. And we’ve had the means on the books in the City since 2009. It’s called the Low Impact Development (LID) Ordinance. In a nutshell, LID advocates the maximum preservation of trees, native vegetation and soil to maintain a site’s ability to return the rain to the soil and back into the water table. Housing is clustered and often grouped into town home villages to preserve as much native trees, vegetation and soil as possible. The rain falls and perks instead of collecting on driveways, roads, rooftops and what little compacted soil there is between huge houses. LID neighborhoods across the country are some of the most coveted and sought after because the green canopy and natural surroundings are so much more livable, calming and yes, cool in the summer. The treed character is preserved and nature’s water-handling system is intact. Other than the aesthetics of maintaining the trees, our streams, rivers and lakes continue to receive cool, filtered water through the soil throughout the year – even summer and fall.
So Huckabay was correct to point out the problem with poor soil in our neighborhood developments. But there’s more to it than just soil. If we’re really going to preserve trees, it has to go further than simply a tree ordinance with teeth. The City must dust off the LID ordinance and have the Planning Commission get it updated, changing it from a toothless and ignored “voluntary” program to a mandatory approach to development . Then the City staff need to get behind it, promote it and support developers to implement it. Even in areas with glacial till (which developers use as an excuse not to use LID), this approach to developing will dramatically change the typical rape-and-scrape carnage on the plateau to clean and green that will be highly marketable.
The LID ordinance has been largely ignored by the City staff and City Council since adoption. Vance was on the Planning Commission when the ordinance was crafted, and has been on the Council since 2011. He has been silent on this issue.
Storm Water Drainage
When Tom Odell was mayor, the Council created an Economic Development Commission of three Council Members–John James, Tom Vance and Nancy Whitten–to review Town Center ordinances and policies at a time when the Great Recession put the brakes on the Town Center, as well as nearly all other projects. Looking for a way to spur development in the Town Center, and hearing constant complaints the regulations for the Town Center were too onerous, the Council decided to undertake a review.
So far, so good.
But the ruling majority on the Council decided to let any Council Member attend the meetings and participate in them. This required public notice because a quorum existed if more than three Council Members attended. Whitten complained then–and many times since–that this effectively nullified the committee.
The committee–or a majority of the Council attending the committee meetings–eventually decided to reduce storm water management requirements for on-site treatment and infiltration from 100% to 60%. Vance, as chairman of the committee, supported the change.
Vance had been on the Planning Commission when the policy was approved. He was chairman of the Commission when the recommendations, including the 100% on-site treatment, were handed off to the City Council. The 60% requirement represented a reversal of his own votes and support on the Planning Commission.
Whitten said Vance wanted to advance his “pet project,” the Community Center that was proposed for within the Town Center, and Staff said they could not meet the 100% requirement.
Whitten told Sammamish Comment that if a regulation doesn’t work and needs relaxing or changing, then it should be relaxed or changed. What she objected to then and still does today is that the Committee was hijacked by the addition of more Council Members and that Vance rammed through changes to the storm water management without public notice of the specific changes. When the issue came before the City Council, Whitten complained then and now little discussion of the changes was held.
Scientific discussion and information should have been provided, Whitten says. There was no discussion of infiltration opportunities in the future for the Town Center.
The Community Center is at the headwaters for Ebright Creek, the same creek that is the principal spawning ground for Kokanee salmon.
Variances and Exceptions
Homeowners and environmentalists complain with increasing frequency, frustration and bitterness over the propensity of the City Staff to grant exemptions and variances for development.
Even the City’s Hearing Examiner found that some of these were improperly granted in some plat approvals.
In recent times, the Chestnut Estates West project was denied by Examiner John Gault for a number of reasons. He cited variances being given in error. One of the appellants, Wally Pereyra, is especially upset about the variances and exemptions granted by staff for the project. He’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore Ebright Creek and submitted comments to the City before a plat approval was granted concerning proposed variances. He’s provided comments in Conner-Jarvis project, which is now under appeal, about the threat to Laughing Jacobs Creek, which along with Ebright Creek, is sensitive to the threatened Kokanee Salmon. Pereyra is undertaking restoration of Zaccuse Creek as another Kokanee spawning ground once restored.
Homoeowners adjacent other projects have complained about variances and exemptions.
Whitten believes staff is over-stepping in the use of its discretion, which is allowed in ordinances. Valderrama cited one project that received 41 variances, resulting in an appeal and a settlement.
He was for it before voting against it
Particularly irksome to Whitten was a plan that would have allowed pilot projects on the western slopes of the Sammamish Plateau. These areas are in what’s called Overlays, a left-over from when our City was unincorporated and governed by King County ordinances. The Overlays highly restrict development in erosion and landslide hazard areas. These came under attack by some homeowners who owned large plots of land but under the Overlays could not develop them.
Led by pro-development Gerend, the Council was prepared to grant pilot project approvals to develop several plots of land. Joining Gerend were John James, John Curley (both of whom left the Council Dec. 31, 2013) and, initially, Tom Vance. Opposing were Tom Odell and Whitten. Valderrama initially leaned toward approving the projects.
Whitten says Vance aligned with “Don and the two Johns” when it appeared there were already four votes in favor (Valderrama being the apparent fourth vote). As debate continued, Valderrama became increasingly skeptical and became a “no” vote. Vance them switched his vote, Whitten said, resulting in a 4-3 majority against the pilot projects.
Town Center variance
When the Planning Commission created the Town Center sub-area Comprehensive Plan, among the policies approved by the Commission and later the City Council was one requiring a 50 foot setback from the sidewalks and a provision for tree and landscape buffers to retain a tree-lined 228th Avenue and to soften the look of any development. The Children’s School on the West side of 228th Ave. is a good example of what a tree/landscape buffer can do.
Vance was on the Planning Commission when this policy was approved and chairman when it was handed off to the Council.
The development in the Southeast Quadrant, kitty-corner to 228th Ave. and NE 4th, is currently constructing a cement vault within spitting distance to the sidewalk. This doesn’t conform in any respect to the vision of the Town Center plan.
“Vance puts the environment on the bus,” Whitten says. “It takes second place to getting something done.”
Whitten has remained true to her environmental credentials. Odell, Valderrama and Keller have been key supporters on many issues. But there are many, many examples where as an institution the City Council’s “green” credentials have turned brown.
Or in the vernacular of the environmental movement, Sammamish has become an active practitioner of greenwashing.