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Trillium Lacked Transportation Solutions

By Gus Guethlein

Last June 12, the Olympia City Council voted to deny D R Horton's master plan application for Trillium Village, because it was not consistent with comprehensive plan goals and did not meet municipal code requirements. The defining issue was transit, or more precisely the lack of it. The hearings examiner called the lack of fixed route public transit and the likelihood that it could take decades, if ever, for transit to become available the projects fatal flaw.

This action stems from a growing awareness regionally that urban density that is not supported by public transit is not sustainable. The Urban Corridor Task Force made an absolutely masterful presentation on the subject in July to the Olympia City Council. Considerable data, reports, plans and other pertinent information is available on the Urban Corridor Task Force page of the Thurston Regional Planning Council web site and the presentation to the City Council can be viewed on the City of Olympia web site as part of the minutes for the July 26, 2011 meeting.

Transportation is the social mechanical glue that makes city scale density practical, workable and tolerable. We humans by nature are a very mobile species. We started out walking, later we domesticated horses, oxen and other beasts of burden to move ourselves and our goods from place to place. Even later we invented technology for the same purpose.

We are on the verge of outgrowing the automobile as an almost universal form of personal transportation. Automobiles require too much space and fuel and create too much pollution and when concentrated in large numbers into small spaces they clog our streets and slow our mobility to an intolerable crawl. Public transit is far more efficient and sustainable.

Public transportation requires that sufficient density be concentrated along well defined easily served corridors in order to offer the greatest efficiency and flexibility. Over the last 40 years prevailing land use practice has been to allow uniform density throughout the entire urban growth area, with the result that most of the density is being concentrated in isolated pockets of "special needs" high density housing - primarily on the outer boundaries of the urban growth areas where large undeveloped tracts are available at substantially lower costs. What works best and is most profitable for the development industry is not necessarily best for the public at large, humanity or the planet in general.

We are seeing the start of a realization: areas that are not supported by urban infrastructure services maybe should not be developed at fully urban densities until those critical services can be secured. It has been a long time in coming.

I attended an open house hosted by Thurston Regional Planning and I remember being particularly struck by their presentation on "out of county commuters" - wage earners that had to travel out of the county in order to make a living. Prior to the 1970's out of county commuters made up a steady 2% of the work force. Starting in the 1970's that percentage started trending upwards, accelerating through the 1980's and 1990's. Thurston Regional Planning projected that by 2020 over 12% (one out of every eight) county wage earners would be out of county commuters. I was shocked by how high the predicted percentage was, especially knowing the majority of those commutes would at least 60 miles a day round trip.

Now, I have to admit that I am part of that statistic. I am a manufacturing engineer for a small machine shop that builds aircraft parts. I was out of work for almost three years following the 9-11 recession. During that period I must have sent out close to a thousand resumes, less than twenty opportunities were within Thurston County. After an exhaustive search, the very shortest drive to work that I could find is one hundred miles round trip (on average two and a half hours) five days a week.

The problem is that we have allowed the development industry to build houses at a much higher rate than we create jobs locally to support them, and we allow them to be built in places that suit the builders the best in spite of the costs and impacts to the community as a whole, and in spite of our comprehensive plan goals and policies and even in spite of our municipal codes that are intended to govern growth and development.

So, on at least one night last June the City Council of Olympia voted to uphold our comprehensive plan and municipal codes governing land use that led us to the decision recently reached this February.

Gus Guethlein lives on Wiggins Road near the proposed Trillium development in SE Olympia and is an active member of the Chambers Lake Basin neighborhood.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22