Variances-R-Us, Part 2: City engineers admitted staff routinely ignored code, relied on unwritten policies

The City Council adopted the [Public Works Standards] by ordinance…. Thus, the PWS has the force of regulation.

When it adopted the PWS, the City Council gave to the Public Works director the authority to administratively amend them…. The record of this hearing does not contain any evidence that the Public Works Director has ever formally exercised that authority: the PWS read today just as when they were adopted in 2000, except for changes that were brought about by the Council’s 2005 adoption…changes which the City Engineer testified are routinely ignored by Public Works and which do not to this day appear in the publicly available version of the PWS. Public Works’ unwritten policies are also not publicly available. (Emphasis added.)

This remarkable section is part of the Sammamish Hearing Examiner report of an appeal of the Kampp Property project by the Pine Hills Homeowners Association.

A City official testified Staff routinely ignores city code, and relies on an unwritten policy. (Memo to lawyers: “arbitrary and capricious” rings a bell here.)

This damning admission underscores the cavalier approach to approving developments that citizens have been complaining about for years.

Kamp Property

Kampp Property. Click on image to enlarge.

It’s another example of how Sammamish has become Variances-R-Us, although in this case, the developer didn’t ask for a variance. Instead the City demanded the developer of the Kampp Property (the large project at SE 20th and 228th Ave. SE) punch through a road connection to the Pine Hills subdivision east of the project at SE 16th. Homeowners objected, pointing out that not only would this connect the Kampp’s 121 homes to sub-standard streets with no improvements, the Kampp project would add about 740 trips a day to the Pine Hills area.

Pine Hills residents met several times with City Staff objecting to the road connection, says one resident involved in the attempt to negotiate away the connection, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. The developer sided with the residents. Continually rebuffed, the residents had no choice but to appeal the project, focusing solely on the connection—and not the project itself—something the Examiner found unusual for a project the size of Kampp.

Examiner John Galt wrote that “City ordinances, and by extension regulations adopted by ordinance, are subject to the same rules of interpretation and construction as apply to state statutes,” noting that state laws are intended to mean what they say, according to case law.

Galt eventually found that the City Staff improperly required the developer to connect the Kampp project to SE 16th. As a result, he invalidated the action, which in turn procedurally rendered the appeal “moot,” but the end result was the same: the Appellants won and the City lost, once again having exceeded and improperly using its authority.

In the meantime, the Pine Hill residents had to spend $30,000 of their own money to prepare, file and fight for the appeal and the City once more had to expend legal fees to defend its action and the cost of staff time for its own preparation and testimony.

City Manager Ben Yazici, in a City Newsletter, boasted that in the 15 years we’ve been a City, the Examiner has upheld the staff. In the broadest sense, he is correct. But increasingly, appeals have been filed that require citizen legal and City legal costs and staff time and expense. Most appeals are denied because in part under State Law, the greatest weight during a SEPA appeal is afforded the governing jurisdiction and the citizens fail to meet their burden to overcome this great weight. In other cases in Sammamish, the Examiner dismissed part of the appeal and upheld part of the appeal. In cases heard by Galt, he has found that the City improperly did something and having done so, he reversed the action and found the appeal “moot,” but the effect was the same: he found for the appellant.

Some projects draw multiple appeals, which are consolidated into one. The Chestnut Estates West project, which Sammamish Comment has chronicled, is one such case. There were three citizen appeals, and the developer also appealed, all citing among other things the City ignoring its own code and exceeding its authority. Galt agreed, found some actions improper, reversed them, rendering some appeal points moot, but upheld others and denied the plat in its entirety.

The evidence is beyond circumstantial that a culture exists in City Hall that allows, or enables, the Staff to turn a blind eye to City Code. Nothing illustrates this more than the opening paragraphs of this post.

A successive series of City Councils have likewise turned a blind eye to this culture. The current City Council has six self-branded environmentalists and one pro-development member. Of the six, only Ramiro Valderrama and Nancy Whitten aggressively try to protect “green” and codes while the others tend to step up only for specific issues and not an overall culture.

This is called greenwashing.

Valderrama and candidates Tom Hornish and Christie Malchow vow to attack this culture of ignoring code. The latter two have first-hand experience as appellants of two projects approved by the City. These are the final development of the East Lake Sammamish Trail by King County and of Chestnut Estates West, respectively.

Recent Examples of Variances-R-Us

  • Chestnut Estates West: The Examiner found the City improperly approved the plat, and issued a decision Denying the plat. As a result, several appeal issues were declared Moot and not decided upon. Some other appeal issues were granted. The Examiner criticized the Staff for its decisions. The developer appealed the Examiner’s decision to King County Superior Court and filed a lawsuit against the City for damages.
  • Kampp Property: The only issue in contention for this 121 home project was the Staff decision to connect the back end of the property to SE 16th in the Pine Hills subdivision, an area where zoning is R-1 (one unit per acre) and streets do not meet Public Works Standards for a “minor access” road. The Examiner found the Staff improperly required this connection and rendered this requirement Moot. Because it was Moot, procedurally he denied the appeal, but the end result is that the Appellants won their case.
  • Windsor Park Estates: The Examiner granted in part the Appeal of this project.
  • Muslim Prayer Parking Lot: The Examiner denied the SEPA appeal but granted in part an appeal of the Conditional Use Permit.

The Kempton Downs Homeowners Assn. appealed the Conner-Jarvis project, a development for 115 homes, on traffic and environmental issues. The association claims City Staff ignored its own codes on traffic and wetland issues. The hearings begin Oct. 26 at 8:30am at City Hall. The hearing is open to the public. See this video for more information.

 

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