by Jim Lazar
The state Court of Appeals ruled September 24 in favor of the Olympia Safe Streets Campaign (OSSC) and the city of Olympia in an appeal filed by DR Horton, the developer of the proposed Trillium subdivision near LBA Park. This puts an end to the proposed 500-unit Neighborhood Village development and leaves open the possibility of a less dense residential subdivision.
Trillium was originally proposed in 2004. OSSC commented several times during the six-year permitting process that the development did not meet the city's standards for bicycle and pedestrian connectivity. Blocks were too long, connections between the neighborhood and adjacent areas were inadequate, and required walkways and pathways were required to have lighting. Initially, the city staff agreed with the developer that these features were not required. The developer essentially ignored these comments in their design.
Eventually, the city council ruled the developer had not demonstrated compliance and denied approval based on transit, school, and the bicycle/pedestrian issues. Horton appealed to the Thurston County Superior Court, which ruled in favor of OSSC and the city. Horton then appealed again to the state Court of Appeals, which ruled conclusively in favor of OSSC and the city council decision. The Court of Appeals even awarded attorney fees and costs to OSSC and the city. The appeal deadline has passed, and Horton did not ask the Supreme Court to review this case, so it's over.
"We participated from the beginning for a simple reason," said Karen Messmer, President of Olympia Safe Streets. "We wanted the new development to be one that people could walk to and through. In 2006, 2008, and again in 2010, we told the developer and the city that this project needed to meet the City's connectivity rules. Instead, they designed it as a bit of a fortress, with some very long blocks that would be a real barrier for people wanting to walk to McKinney Elementary School and to nearby neighborhoods."
The decision is very clear on some important policy issues. First and foremost, if the city has an ordinance making the comprehensive plan mandatory, then developments must comply with these goals and policies. Previously, city staff has argued the comprehensive plan is a "guidance" document and only the development code is enforceable. This case should put that attitude to rest.
The court also found the city standard requiring blocks in residential developments be no more than 350 feet long is not ambiguous and needs to be followed. This should mean the city staff will enforce these provisions in future development proposals.
The development is not going away completely. DR Horton requested a new zoning designation, and the city council approved a rezone to R4-8, meaning a minimum of four and maximum of eight units per acre. This is less dense zoning, of no more than about 300 homes, without the requirement for either multi-family housing or retail. Horton is free to reapply under the more lenient zoning. In this case, the school and transit issues will not slow them down, but the bicycle and pedestrian connectivity standards affirmed by the court will still need to be followed.
"The requirements for connectivity are exactly the same with the new zoning," said Messmer. "We'll be there again to make sure that the new design is done right. People should be able to walk to their neighbors, walk to school, and walk to the bus."
Neighbors surrounding the proposed development opposed approval as well, focusing mostly on stormwater management issues. Thurston County also opposed the development on this basis, expressing concern neighborhoods in the adjacent county jurisdiction would be at risk of flooding. Storm water issues were never addressed or resolved because the development could not get past the master plan stage. These issues will be addressed if the property owner files a plan for development under the new zoning.
This is the third major recent development proposal in which city staff has been challenged by citizens, and where the eventual decision was resolved in favor of the citizens, not city staff.
The first was the Bing Street apartments, in which the staff initially supported a large apartment complex accessible only from a narrow residential street. Eventually staff agreed with citizens and denied the application.
The second was the proposed 7-11 store at Harrison Ave. and Division St. The Superior Court overruled city staff and denied the application for not following the city's own standards. After the denial, citizen advocate Alicia Elliot purchased the property and launched West Central Park (www.aparkforus.org).
Trillium is yet another case where the court affirmed the citizens, and overruled the position taken by the City planning staff.
Jim Lazar is an energy economist with a global consulting practice in electric utility resource planning and energy conservation. He is a Board Member of the Olympia Safe Streets Campaign, a small bicycling and walking advocacy group.
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