Many will be discussed at the annual retreat Jan. 19-21 at the Hotel Murano in Tacoma. It’s open to the public.
Here, in alphabetical order, is a list of the major issues facing the Sammamish City Council this year. It probably isn’t a comprehensive list and events may cause new issues to emerge and some of these to drop off.
Sammamish Council and Administration officials proudly point out the budget’s strength since incorporation. No new taxes, no utility tax, deferring the state-authorized 1% hike in property tax for the last eight consecutive years and a healthy general fund balance. No debt, either.
From incorporation through 2015, Sammamish spent about $250m in road maintenance, some road improvements, parks, land acquisition, City Hall, and (with spill-over into 2016), the new Community Center. All this out of operating funds, except for about $25m in debt right after incorporation, which is paid off.
The end of these happy days is in sight, even if officials don’t want to face up to the reckoning.
Deferring spending decisions on big ticket items like major roadways are largely responsible. These deferrals are rapidly coming due.
City Manager Lyman Howard, who was the finance director for years, to his credit has been raising the warning flag.
Howard raised the prospect of taking the 1% annual property tax hike allowed under state law. He’s talked about imposing, for the first time, a utility tax. There’s even been talk about trying to assume the Northeast Sammamish and Sammamish Plateau water districts for their revenue streams—though little understanding has been exhibited that city officials have the slightest idea what’s really involved in this wet dream. (Wet. Water. Get it?)
See the discussion about Road Projects below. There are $91m in projects on the city’s wish list.
There’s the prospect of a $15m indoor sports facility on the YMCA property by Pine Lake Middle School, a project that the city contracted to do under a lease agreement with the YMCA. However, this has run into serious public opposition. A decision was put off to 2019. But studies will be underway this year.
There’s the $6m White Elephant called Mars Hills Church. The city rushed to buy this building and land when the church collapsed in scandal. It’s been empty for two years, with no takers coming forward to lease it, though there has been a strong effort to attract one of the colleges to open an annex here. No decision yet. Meantime, this albatross remains a money drain.
The topic is coming up at the Retreat.
Building Moratorium and Development
The burst of development in the past few years galvanized a segment of the population into protests as trees came down, buildings went up and traffic got worse.
Councilman Ramiro Valderrama surprised his fellow Council Members in September with a proposal to adopt a building moratorium on the Town Center. The narrow focus of his motion wasn’t clear, and citizens from across the City descended on the Council to protest during public comment that extended more than two hours.
Council Member Kathy Huckabay, a self-described slow-growth environmentalist, immediately emailed Todd Levitt of developer Murray Franklyn (one of the most active in Sammamish) to alert him of Valderrama’s proposal, a public records request (PRR) revealed.
After the Council voted down Valderrama’s request for an immediate moratorium in favor of a study of the issues, Huckabay received a thank you email from Levitt, who requested a meeting with her that, from the wording of the email, appeared to be at least a second meeting.
Emails obtained under the PRR show Huckabay encouraging opponents to the moratorium to appear at the public comment session.
Mayor Don Gerend pointed out in an email, also obtained through the PRR, that the spurt in development came after years of pent-up demand because of the global Great Recession, which began in 2008.
Member Malchow, also in emails obtained through the PRR, said she didn’t want to wait until the retreat this month to get answers from staff on growth issues. However, in the press of finishing year-end activities and the holidays, little has been done.
A moratorium appears dead. But growth and development issues are alive and well and will undoubtedly play a big role in Council and Staff attention this year.
East Lake Sammamish Trail
It’s been a controversial issue for more than 20 years and it’s still one that City officials face again this year: the East Lake Sammamish Trail (ELST).
After several appeals, development of the southern end of the trail, from the 7-11 to the Issaquah city limits, is underway. Sammamish must ride herd on King County to be sure it doesn’t abuse residents as it did with the development of the northern section, from Inglewood Hill Road to the Redmond city limits.
And then there’s the middle section, between the southern and northern ends. This is the most difficult section. King County approved home development well inside the railroad right-of-away decades ago, eliminating the prospect of meeting the federal standards county officials so ardently fought for in the northern and southern ends.
How the county and city deal with these tough issues will be contentious, adding to a relationship that is already strained.
It won’t be pretty.
Council Member Tom Hornish, who lives along the middle section, likely will recuse himself from any Council-level decisions due to a conflict of interest. Emails obtained last year under a PRR reveal that one pro-trail advocate urged Huckabay to pursue recusal of Hornish from all matters involving the Lake Trail, regardless of the location or the issue. This is unlikely to abate this year.
Council Member Tom Odell has been blunt: Sammamish has neglected its roads (aside from maintenance) for 10 years. New taxes or new debt will likely be needed to fund the road projects that are needed.
Except that once again, the City Council ducked this reality when in October it approved the next two- year budget for 2017-18.
Whether the fact that 2017 is a City Council election year and the terms of four members, including Odell, expire this year has anything to do with ducking the funding issue again is a matter of speculation. None of the four has said whether they will run for reelection.
The City spends millions every year in maintenance and overlays, but actual road development has been largely absent. This year, after several delays, 212th Ave. SE (aka Snake Hill Road) will get rebuilt. It’s on a hazardous slide under-base and the road is becoming more at risk of sliding. The $9m project was supposed to begin last year. Now it’s this year.
The intersection of East Lake Sammamish Parkway and Inglewood Hill Road was redesigned for safety reasons. Some streets received sidewalks and walking paths.
But dangerous roads, like the arterial SE 24th from 200th Ave. SE to the Parkway and Beaver Lake Drive, each with blind curves and no walkways or bike paths, remain unimproved after inheriting these sub-standard roads from King County when Sammamish was incorporated in 1999.
Gaps in sidewalks along 212th from the Chestnut Hills subdivision to Ebright Creek Park require moms with baby strollers to walk along the shoulder of this arterial.
Improving Issaquah-Pine Lake Road has been in the Transportation Improvement Plan since 2003, without action, save for a roundabout and median strip by Sunny Hills Elementary School (something that aggravated traffic into and out of the school). Roundabouts along NE 8th similarly seem to added to school-hour congestion, not relieve it.
At a round table on growth last year, attended by about 150 people, a consensus appeared to emerge favoring issuing debt if it meant improving roads. But one Council Member, who is not up for election this year, questions whether this is representative enough.
The answer to this, of course, is to put a bond issue for roads to the voters. But no action was taken on this idea, either.
Regardless, Sammamish has $91m in road projects identified in its Six Year Transportation Improvement Plan and only $35m in the bank.
The lack of political courage over new taxes or new debt is nothing unique to this Council; it’s been the history virtually all along. But no new taxes and no debt has been paramount.
And it means roads haven’t been improved since 244th became a major north-south arterial alternative to 228th, albeit somewhat circuitously, or East Lake Sammamish Parkway got a center median for maybe a mile, a design of dubious value.
Staff was directed by Council to prepare a comprehensive transportation study to identify what roads should become priorities, and how much this will cost. This is likely to take all year and the tab is likely to be well into nine figures.
Which brings us to….
A $16m road plan for Sahalee Way from 228th Ave. to the northern city limits won’t add lanes (except for a third, turning lane), but it will add a sidewalk on one side and bike lanes. On paper, according to engineering standards, the sidewalk and bike lanes add capacity and make traffic smoother. Which is true, up to a point—provided the bike and pedestrian traffic is already present and conflicting with today’s traffic.
What’s also true is that there aren’t plans to widen the road to five lanes and really added to capacity to one of the busiest roads in the city.
One reason is that Sahalee Way goes to SR202 but the city limits do not. This leaves a long section under jurisdiction of King County, which doesn’t have the proverbial pot to piss in to fund widening Sahalee, even with a truck climbing lane.
Odell has been trying to cut a deal with the county on this, and on the portion of Duthie Hill Road that is between Trossachs and High Country, to make improvements. So far there hasn’t been luck, and there are significant legal hurdles because these are county, not city, roads.
Some Council Members remain unconvinced that spending $16m on Sahalee Way for no real, new road capacity is worth it. In a 4-3 vote, the Council rejected a request from the staff to award a $1.57m design contract for the project.
This remains a controversial issue this year. It will become part of a Transportation Management Plan to be discussed at the City’s annual retreat Jan. 19-21 in Tacoma at the Murano Hotel.
Tamarack Drainage issues
The City Council set aside $750,000 to begin solving storm water drainage issues for the Tamarack subdivision, and this may only be the beginning.
Tamarack residents complained for 10 years that uphill development results in flooding and storm water runoff that damages their property. In recent years, residents appeared almost at every City Council meeting public comment section to lobby for a solution.
The current City Council received the brunt of this lobbying. For years, it’s done nothing, until finally setting aside the three-quarters of a million dollars.
The issue has been going on for more than a decade without the City finding a resolution.
Yet another study has been ordered by the City Council.
Trees come down when development projects begin. A more restrictive retention tree ordinance, adopted in 2015, was too little, too late—the classic case of closing the barn door after the horse got out. There is so little undeveloped and under-developed land left in Sammamish that the ordinance, which requires 35% tree retention and hefty fines for violators, won’t have much effect.
But tree lovers won’t stop at efforts to save trees.
Which brings us to….
YMCA Property by Pine Lake Middle School
When Sammamish entered into a contract with the YMCA to manage the new Community Center in Sammamish Commons, the Y also agreed to contribute $5m to the cost of the project.
A quid pro quo was a contract with Sammamish to lease seven acres the Y owns by Pine Lake Middle School and develop a sports complex of some kind (commonly talked about as an indoor soccer facility).
This property is heavily treed, with streams and wetlands going through it.
There is a major citizen effort to retain the area in its natural state, with trails allowed. This requires altering the contract with the Y.
This will be subject to negotiations this year.