- The City Council meeting tonight at 6:30p will undoubtedly discuss the Mullor Study. The study may be accessed here.
By Scott Hamilton
The news yesterday that Sammamish has been using outdated traffic counts, mostly from 2012 but some from 2014 and none from 2016, to run its traffic concurrency tests for development applications is fundamentally cooking the books to approve projects.
I should be outraged, but I’m not.
I should be shocked, but I’m not.
I’m not even surprised.
It just goes to show you how far our city government and City Council declined over the years to become a mini-King County.
I reached this conclusion as far back as 2009. That was 10 years after Sammamish incorporated.
Concurrency and King County
Traffic concurrency is a fundamental element of approving, or rejecting, growth in Washington State. This means roads must be able to accommodate the traffic from growth.
Before Sammamish was a city, it fell under King County’s rule. The major impetus to incorporation was the unbridled growth the County approved for Sammamish and the neglect of the infrastructure to support it.
I appealed three developments, citing concurrency as the prime issue. I also cited environmental concerns, but it was concurrency that was the mover-and-shaker.
I won all three.
With my traffic engineer, Joe Savage, we dived into the “black box” the County used for concurrency testing. Savage proved the County manipulated data, never rejecting a project for the Sammamish area. Policy permitted any one project to produce 110% of the traffic allowed.
The projects were approved one at a time, in isolation, so in theory and in fact 10 projects each could produce 110% of the traffic. These dumped too much traffic onto SR 202 (which was then a two-lane highway), creating a traffic mess then. Even expanding SR202 to four lanes hasn’t solved the problem, because more and more growth continues.
(This is a classic example of how you can’t build your way out of traffic congestion.)
During the course of the hearing, Savage discovered that King County–after our challenge to valid traffic counts–lowered the numbers for 212th and 228th. However, the numbers went up on the connecting road, SE 20th.
This led to the obvious question, how could the numbers go up on 20th while going down on 212th and 228th? It appeared those drivers were just going back and forth, back and forth, cruising SE 20th like some scene out of American Graffiti.
There were other examples of black box manipulation within what became Sammamish after the 1999 vote.
Concurrency and Sammamish
When Sammamish incorporated, I was named to the Planning Advisory Board to write the Comprehensive Plan and later to the Planning Commission.
Having come off the King County experience, the 17-member PAB and seven-member PC worked to have strict concurrency and Level of Service standards. These were among the strictest in the State.
The lead traffic consultant then, Victor Salemann of a Bellevue engineering firm, and later of a different company, and another traffic engineer, Randy Young, provided excellent work and advice. Salemann lives in Sammamish.
Salemann continues as the City’s outside traffic consultant. He’s a straight-shooter and tells the City Council what it needs to know.
During the debate over what to do with Sahalee Way, Salemann straight-up said improving the road won’t solve the congestion problem. Safety improvements would be the greatest benefit.
It was not what the Council wanted to hear and it’s not what the Council or staff had been trying to “sell” to residents: that congestion would improve.
The City Staff and City Council decide what to do with Salemann’s data, findings and recommendations.
By 2009, concurrent with the creation of the Town Center development plan, it was clear Sammamish was headed for an extended round of continuing traffic problems. Although the financial crisis that began in September 2008 had brought development to a halt, it was also clear this would only be a temporary reprieve.
The Environmental Impact Statement for the Town Center showed potential traffic impacts all the way over on Duthie Hill Road, near Trossachs.
Impacts along 228th Ave. SE, bisecting the Town Center, were already approaching maximum volume even then. The EIS showed the tipping point wasn’t that far away.
The EIS concluded the Town Center could accommodate a maximum of 700,000 sf of commercial-retail and 3,000 homes before roads all over town would fail.
(The consultant commercial studies indicated Sammamish could only support 500,000 sf of commercial space in addition to the retail centers at either end of 228th. A commercial retail developer on the Planning Commission concluded Sammamish could support only 400,000 more sf of retail space.)
The Planning Commission, of which I was a part, recommended 500,000 sf and 2,400 residential units. A couple of landowners advocated for 1.4m sf (bigger than the then-size of Redmond Town Center) and nearly 4,000 units. This was a non-starter at the PC, not only for commercial reasons, but for the obvious cost and question of how do you build the roads to support this?
During the Town Center process, certain members of the City Council wanted the 700,000 sf of retail despite all the recommendations and studies to the contrary.
Recommendations for setbacks were watered down by the staff and Council.
Planning Commission recommendations on other issues were ignore by the Council and actively undermined by the City Manager, Ben Yazici, and the staff.
Open warfare broke out between the Commission and Staff and, to a lesser extent, between the Commission and Council.
Over the ensuing years, the City Council—still made of self-proclaimed environmentalists—made decision after decision that weakened environmental rules and transportation concurrency. The northern half of East Lake Sammamish Parkway was taken out of concurrency standards because there was no feasible way to add capacity, it emptied into Redmond and keeping it in would cause failures in concurrency testing.
This meant that the north ELSP is destined to be a parking lot during the AM rush hour and development after development will be approved adding to the mess. Remember, too, that the City Council in 2016 removed the AM rush hour from concurrency testing and chose instead to use only the PM rush hour.
Greenwashing and Variances-R-Us
Development issues reached a crescendo in 2015 when it became clear the 2014-2015 City Council and Staff engaged in “greenwashing” (see here and here) and the staff had become our own version of Variances-R-Us (see here and here).
Enraged citizens voted out Mayor Tom Vance, who was running for reelection to a second term, and defeated Mark Cross, a former City Councilman and Mayor who was attempting a comeback after a four-year hiatus. Both were self-proclaimed environmentalists and in fact had a good environmental record on the planning commission and Council, respectively.
But Vance’s environmental commitment gave way to a get-along, go-along pace during his term on the Council.
Then-City Manager Yazici’s environmental credentials never were strong. He ignored Council direction for years to pursue creating a Low Impact Development ordinance. When he finally couldn’t put it off any longer, Yazici pursued a meaningless “voluntary” LID ordinance that was adopted by a pliant City Council that didn’t have the chops to stand up to him and demand something with teeth in it.
The next targets
After throwing out Vance and rejecting Cross in the 2015 election, an angry electorate—buoyed by their victories over these two—vowed to continue the purge this year. Council Members Kathy Huckabay, Tom Odell, Bob Keller and Don Gerend—who all would be up for election—were targeted for defeat in this priority, descending order.
All but Gerend described themselves as environmentalists, who critics believed were no longer true to their brand. The characterization wasn’t this simple and not entirely fair, but it reflected the frustration of years of development, worsening traffic and falling trees.
As for Gerend, he’s a developer but not a rabid one and he often tried to strike a balance between property rights and the environment. Still, he seems more often than not to come down for development than the environment. (Witness last week’s angry, sole vote against suspending pilot projects on slopes, consider critical areas under City code.) He tended to get a pass because he is who he is, and not someone who anti-growth, pro-environmentalists feel haven’t lived up to their self-branding.
However, all four decided to retire and not seek reelection.
There are 12 candidates seeking these four seats. Two filed for Position one, three filed for each of Positions 3 and 5 and four filed for Position 7.
It’s too early since the candidate filing deadline of May 19 to know where everyone stands on the details of the issues, except for Karen Moran (Position 3), who has a record opposing growth, criticizing City staff on their performance and transportation analysis and decisions. The other 11 say the “right” things about controlling growth and looking after transportation, but the devil is in the details.
One presumes these details will emerge between now and the Aug. 1 primary.
The bottom line
Because I know this history better than most, it was without outrage or surprise that Mullor’s findings reveal a systematic cooking of the books in order to approve development in Sammamish.
As noted in yesterday’s report, the vast majority of Sammamish’s revenue depends on permit and development fees and property taxes. Sammamish’s budget would collapse without this revenue.
It’s already under strain and potentially facing the need to adopt new taxes.
The cost is congested roads and harm to the environment.