Writing Sammamish’s first Comp Plan

In Part 1, the background, objectives and membership of the Planning Advisory Board was described. In Part 2, the PAB gets down to work writing Sammamish’s first Comprehensive Plan. This is six pages when printed.

City_of_SammamishThe 17-member Planning Advisory Board members were a cross-section of environmentalists, activists, developers, real estate agents and businessmen. The City Council did an admirable job of appointing a broad spectrum of people.

Open divisions from the start

However, from the start there was open tension among the members. Divisions from the bitter 1999 City Council election carried over to the PAB, which was appointed by this Council. Most of the members of the PAB supported the candidates who won in that bitter contest; a few supported the losing candidates, who, it will be remembered, lost by wide margins in what turned out to be a nasty race filled with anonymous fliers and a forged newsletter.

Sammamish MapOne of the developer-real estate appointees who supported the Council candidates later told one of the environmentalist-activists it was her personal mission to oppose everything he said. The two strong personalities clashed often and openly.

Two members resigned early. One Council Member later said they resigned because they thought the PAB was too heavily dominated by environmentalists. Whether this is an accurate characterization or not is beside the point. The broad spectrum of the appointees belies any charge that environmentalists ran away with the process. In the end, the Comp Plan was adopted and recommended by the PAB with just one dissenting vote and this vote had nothing to do with the environment or any other issue. The dissenter complained the PAB hadn’t finished its job. (This will be described later.)

King County Light or Start Over

Writing a Comprehensive Plan was going to be a lengthy process. The PAB was told to expect to spend perhaps two years on the job. The members would later learn that some Washington cities spent three years writing their first Comp Plan. It also would turn out City officials wanted to set a record to finish up, a directive that would have consequences in the years to come.

The City Council named business owner Bill Baldwin, a Sahalee resident, chairman. Vice Chairman went to Sally Jarvis. She was the wife of former Judge Peter Jarvis, a highly respected jurist. She was also a former real estate agent-developer and a former business associate of one of the other members of the PAB.

(For those who immediately wonder if these Jarvises are part of the Conner-Jarvis development compound, the answer is yes. Son Scot Jarvis would become the first Chairman of the first Planning Commission. Scot represents the family interests in Conner-Jarvis. None of this is relevant to this story but given the controversy that developed last year over the development, some 15 years after the Comp Plan project was underway, I feel it necessary to make this disclosure. The PAB did not change the Jarvis compound R-6 zoning that Sammamish inherited from King County. There was no improper influence by Sally or Scot Jarvis on any issue that affected their 40-acre compound (or any other land or issue, either). As one who served on the PAB with Sally and on the Planning Commission with Scot, I can validate they served with honor, integrity and with the best interests of the City in their minds and hearts. The suggestions otherwise last year and today are completely unfounded.—Editor.)

One of the first decisions that had to be made was how to approach the task of writing the Plan. Since incorporating was first and foremost about wanting to get out from under King County rule, and rules, there was strong sentiment in starting from scratch to write the Plan.

Others, including the new City Staff and consultants, favored taking the King County Comp Plan as the basis and modifying it. The Council went with the latter approach. It was a disappointing decision and it was the most expedient.  But it later proved critical when it came to the environmental section of the new Plan.

The Top Issues

It will come as no surprise to those who complain today that development and traffic are their top issues about Sammamish. So it was then, driving citizens to incorporate. King County for years approved one project after another on the Plateau without expanding the infrastructure. Officials further planned to designate the Plateau as a receiving area for Transfer Development Rights from North Bend, but in a rare instance bowed to vociferous protests and backed off this plan.

To give a new City time to write the Comp Plan and then the supporting ordinances, it is common practice to adopt a building moratorium. Knowing this, developers rushed to file applications with King County before Sammamish incorporated. The white billboards announcing the application went up all over the Plateau. (These are the blue billboards today under the City.) After incorporation, one of the first things the City Council did was to adopt the moratorium. But the applications were vested and these projects could proceed despite the moratorium.

Therefore, even as the PAB settled down to work, development continued. Trees came down. Roads became jammed. The Council approved projects to turn 228th Ave. from two lanes to five and to make modest improvements to other roads and intersections.

Transportation

In Washington, development and transportation (roads) are tied together in what’s called Level of Service (LOS) and Concurrency (road capacity).

LOS means how long traffic in each direction has to wait at an intersection controlled by a stop sign or traffic signal. Later, roundabouts were added to this mix. LOS levels ran from A (the best) to F (failing). Setting these LOS designations are a decision of the City Council. The City Council and their constituents like the shortest delays through any given intersection. Drivers don’t want to wait. City Council members don’t want the complaints from their constituents who have to wait too long.

For the more environmentally sensitive Council Members, they also equate delays as adverse to the environment because of the emissions (especially from diesel Volkswagens—sorry, couldn’t resist).

But ideals aside, there is a practical matter facing a city, state or county. The cost and challenges of designing an intersection and the roads feeding it to maintain the designated LOS. Los Angeles has spent billions of dollars adding concrete and its traffic is a mess by any standard. Sound Transit has spent and will spend billions in the name of taking cars off the street and transportation in Puget Sound still sucks.

A new city like Sammamish can’t afford the cost of having LOS A and the land isn’t available in any event to support it. Still, the PAB settled on LOS C and so did the City Council. (Some cities, usually urban ones like Seattle and probably Bellevue, simply recognize their traffic and nothing can affordably be done about it, and adopt LOS F.) The LOS levels are established for a two-hour period for the morning and evening rush hours.

So it is also for Concurrency.

This principal relates to the physical volume of traffic that can be carried between two designated points on a roadway. A road like 228th or Sahalee Way or East Lake Sammamish Parkway is divided up into segments. Each segment can carry only so much traffic before it grinds to a halt under its own volume. If this happens, the segment “fails.” If new development is computed in traffic modeling to send too much traffic to a given segment, or if the project sends too much traffic to an intersection, causing the road segment or intersection to fail the adopted standards, the project can be denied.

There are a number of remedies or “mitigations” that can be adopted to bring the Concurrency or LOS back in compliance. Among these: signalizing a stop sign intersection. Installing a roundabout. Adding bike lanes or sidewalks to a road that doesn’t have them, the theory being you take away bicycle and pedestrian conflicts with cars. The city can add traffic lanes.

Developers are required to pay their “fair share” of these mitigations. Since traffic already exists (called background traffic), the city also winds up footing some of the bill. This is why when citizens ask, “why doesn’t the developer pay for a new road?” the answer is the city has to pay for its fair share, too. This is where you get into Transportation Improvement Plans (TIPs), which designate priority road project for the next six years. This is a requirement under state law. These are all issues that the PAB had to deal with.

Environmental Issues

Development (and new or improved roads) affects the environment. Trees come down. Stormwater runoff from development and the roads run into ditches, then into creeks, wetlands and lakes.

Legacy Sammamish has three well-known lakes and one not so well-known. With the Klahanie annexation, Sammamish now has five lakes.

These are Beaver Lake, Pine Lake and Lake Sammamish; Laughing Jacobs Lake in the Jarvis compound and Yellow Lake in Klahanie.

Beaver and Pine lakes have special standards because of their sensitivity to protect them from stormwater runoff. Lake Sammamish also has special standards, but not as strict as the other two.

George Davis, Ebright, Zackuse and Laughing Jacob creeks are the four largest creeks running into Lake Sammamish. Ebright and Zackuse are principal targets for restoration for spawning Kokanee salmon. Laughing Jacobs is a future target. George Davis is also on the list.

The PAB had to wrestle with these issues, which are affected by development and roads. The PAB adopted a policy for the establishment of a Water Quality Control Board. The theory was Sammamish needed to look at all the lakes and creeks from a larger perspective because many were interconnected and most in one way or another fed into Lake Sammamish. Looking at each of these areas in isolation was deemed unwise.

This policy was retained by the City Council, which to this day never did anything to create a control board.

When the PAB was ready to tackle the environmental policies, the City staff member working with the PAB proposed one and three quarters pages of policies. Given the history of the incorporation and sensitivity about the abuse to the environment, the staffer’s proposal was shocking—and shockingly insensitive.

A quiet revolt was thus born.

One of the leading environmentalists on the PAB concluded that an ad hoc committee was needed to counter the staffer’s shallow proposal. Because of the open divisions on the PAB, this effort needed to be undertaken quietly. Because this PAB member was too controversial to lead the effort and present recommendations, a non-controversial consensus builder was needed to lead this unofficial and un-sanctioned committee. The leading environmentalists banded together. PAB member Bob Keller was asked to lead the committee, which met at a home of one the other members.

Ironically, after many objected to relying on the King County Comp Plan as the basis for the City’s Plan, this group turned to the County’s document to serve as the basis of Sammamish’s Plan and to reject the mere page-and-a-half offered by the staff member.

With some additions, deletions and some tweaking, the ad hoc committee came up with its own recommendations. Keller shepherded the proposal through the PAB leadership and the entire committee.

More than 10 years later, Keller, by then a City Council Member, would join with fellow Member Nancy Whitten to push back yet another staff attempt to gut the environmental section of the rewrite of the Comp Plan. Along with Council Member Tom Odell, and joined by others on the Council, the watered-down staff proposal was entirely killed, but a far better version was the result.

Development and Jobs

Under State law, Comprehensive Plans must include provisions for development (aka “growth”) and jobs. These amounted to a trickle-down from targets set at the state level, to regional entities (in our case, the Puget Sound Regional Council), to the counties and then to the cities.

The formulae are complex in reaching the numbers for anticipation population and job growth targets. Suffice it to say, bureaucrats at all levels come up with the numbers and targets. By the time these get down to the city level, negotiations by staff and elected officials with those up the food chain are often involved.

Some cities want growth. Issaquah is one of these. The construction you see along Gilman Blvd. is but one element in Issaquah’s drive to become an Urban Growth Center.

Other cities, like Sammamish, don’t want growth but are required to take some anyway under the State’s Growth Management Act. Officials here negotiated with the bureaucrats above to be allocated as little growth targets as possible.

This writer, as a PAB member, went to one staff-level meeting of representatives of various cities to observe the process. My presence was not welcome. It was clear they didn’t want an “outsider” seeing how the sausage was made.

The PAB had to set policies to conform with the GMA requirements. This included zoning. Except where required by law (either under state law or through various court or quasi-judicial decisions), the PAB maintained the zoning that was inherited from King County in the days before incorporation.

There was one exception. Sammamish was then a bedroom community with three commercial areas: the Pine Lake shopping center (QFC); the Sammamish Highlands shopping center (Safeway and the McDonald’s area); and the 7-11 strip center on East Lake Sammamish Parkway.

The City Council and many others, including the PAB as group, envisioned the creation of a Town Center. These would have more commercial/retail and residential units and, a first for Sammamish, office space.

This concept came down to the last of the business to be tackled by the PAB. It would also prove to be the most controversial. Accordingly, this will be the subject all unto its own in a future post.

Approving the Plan

By the time the PAB reached the point of being ready to consider the Town Center, it was approaching 18 months of work. Recall that some new cities took up to three years.

But the City Council (by now the one elected in 2001) and the City Manager wanted to get the Comp Plan approved. The Council directed the PAB to finish its work without considering the Town Center. The Town Center would become a dedicated process of its own.

Accordingly, and following State law, the PAB designated large swaths of land on either side of 228th Ave. SE from SE 8th to Main St. as R-4 zoning. This was in accordance with what was known as the “bright line” test. This principal that emerged from zonings in other cities which were appealed ruled that in an urban area, the minimum zoning had to be R-4 (four units per acre) unless there were compelling environmental issues to support lower density.

The PAB’s rezoning of this area from R-1 to R-4 in accordance with the bright line test was misunderstood by residents of the area, who charged the PAB was trying to stifle development of a commercial central district. They also did not recognize that the PAB was acting under orders to cease work by the City Council.

The PAB approved the Comp Plan draft with one dissenting vote. Jon Griffin voted no to object to a job not finished. All the other members present on the final night the PAB was in business voted in favor. This included the broad spectrum of members representing business, developers and environmentalists. This will be an important point to remember in the context of the Town Center plan process that will be related in the future.

With the work finished, the City Manager and Council bragged that Sammamish had set a record of approving the Comp Plan in just 18 months.

Another six months at the outside would have seen the PAB finish up the Town Center plan. Instead, it would take another six years.

Next: Creating the Town Center Plan.

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8 Responses to Writing Sammamish’s first Comp Plan

  1. Chris Ross says:

    Scott, terrific reporting. Not only did you explain the history and issues faced, you skillfully explained key fundamentals and terms related to the planning effort. To often officials talk using language that does not resonate with the majority of our citizens. You are the decoder. Keep these coming!!

    • cityhamilton says:

      To often officials talk using language that does not resonate with the majority of our citizens. You are the decoder

      I chuckled when I read this, Chris. We involved in the city become so used to the terms that we often forget it’s “jargon,” and that the citizens usually have no clue what the words and phrases mean.

  2. Frank Blau says:

    Just curious why you don’t use actual names in this series. I mean, these are matters of historical record, right?

    It makes it seem just more salacious and gossipy to keep referring to people as “One of the developer-real estate appointees” etc…

    Fill in the blanks!

  3. Pingback: Creating the Town Center Plan | Sammamish Comment

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  5. Pingback: History of Sammamish resumes today | Sammamish Comment

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