Seattle Ramming Through Measure for Business over Livability

November 11, 2008

While we’re still experiencing the buzz of the election, let’s chanel that into some attention to local politics.  There is a local issue coming to attention of the Council this week that influences everyone living here.

At issue are rather classic competing concerns about the City.  On one side are the people who live here who would like to  enhance its livability and on the other side are people interested beautifying the Westlake area where it intersects the Mercer Corridor.  The issue is whether $30 million is best spent construction a 6 block boulevard or whether it can be put to better use.

The City Council is trying to rush the boulevard approval through without considering a variety of relevant issues including alternative uses of the money.

The City Council’s Budget Committee this week l will consider whether to authorize spending $30 million for the Mercer Corridor Project in 2009 without first receiving the financial and environmental information it requested in Ordinance 122686 (passed in May 2008) as a necessary condition for the Mayor to proceed with the Mercer Project.

Nick Licata is leading the “livability” concerns and is joined by the following groups:

Magnolia Community Club
Rainier Beach Community Club Executive Board
Queen Anne Community Council
Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council
Othello Neighborhood Association
Columbia City Community Council
North Seattle Industrial Association
Aurora Avenue Merchants Association
Fremont Chamber of Commerce
Ballard District Council
Seattle Community Council Federation
Northeast District Council
Metropolitan Democratic Club
Seattle Marine Business Coalition
36th District Democrats
46th District Democrats
43rd District Democrats
Queen Anne Neighbors for Responsible Growth
University District Community Council

Expressing Concerns

Feet First (supports dedicating surplus commercial
parking tax revenues to fully funding healthy transportation choices equitably across Seattle rather than going to the Mercer Project)

The money is on the “boulevard” side, as you might guess, with Paul Allen’s people seeing this as a nice enhancement for their South Lake Union project, businesses in the Mercer area favor it as an enhancement that is likely to help business.  Many people in the Queen Anne area also favor the project as it enhances their neighborhood, while others there are eager to see the money used for other more broadly beneficial. (There is a discussion of the alternative uses here on September 30).  Generally speaking the moneyed interests favor investing the money to make Seattle a better place to drive to.  It is important to understand though that this measure is not to relieve traffic but to add aesthetic value to the drive.

To find out more you can contact any of the groups listed above or read the previous entries here or contact the City.  Please register your thoughts with the Council members who operate without the benefit of a great deal of public input.

Citizens are directed to the following website to complete a form to send an email to the Mayor’s Office.

County’s Hands Tied on Excessive Forest Clearing

July 9, 2008

RCW 82.02.020 is an example of the ways in which the stong hand of special interest lobbies in Olympia affect folks in Washington. This law says in pertinent part that

no county, city, town, or other municipal corporation shall impose any tax, fee, or charge, either direct or indirect, on the construction or reconstruction of residential buildings, commercial buildings, industrial buildings, or on any other building or building space or appurtenance thereto, or on the development, subdivision, classification, or reclassification of land.

Meanwhile King County adopted its Clearing and Grading Critical Areas Ordinance in 2004 pursuant to the Growth Management Act (RCW 36.70A.060(2)) which required it to adopt regulations to protect its critical assets. Generally speaking the ordinance prohibited clearing more than 50% of rural lots with a number of qualifications and exceptions.

Before adopting this regulation the County undertook a number of studies and consulted with experts to verify that excessive clearing had negative impacts on stream health, wildlife, and critical aquifer recharge areas in the County.

The ordinance was challenged by a property rights groups that contended that the blanket prohibition against clearing was an improper indirect charge under RCW 82.02.020.

The County said that this was not a tax but a justified regulation, presenting 24 journal articles and several experts who identified the harm sought to be avoided and vouched for the efficacy of the regulation in terms of avoiding the harm.

The trial court sided with the County but the Court of Appeals did not. In Citizens Alliance for Property Rights v. Ron Sims

the court held that the bar against excessive clearing was prohibited by statute. The decision seems quite sound to me, relying on well established pro-development case law. Without disregarding precedent, the court could do little else. (Personally I would like to see the court start whittling away at the existing law.)

What is important here, I believe is that local decision regarding the environment, urban sprawl, habitat, and water issues are fairly commonly thwarted by the state legislature which in turn is rather shockingly influenced by special interests, particularly the building industry which pushed through the legislation giving developers a preferred tax status.

Seattle’s Indemnity Agreement.

June 3, 2008

Many people who are interested in buying real property take solace from the fact that a building meets city code, that the city has inspected the structure and finally approved it. This is particularly true with buildings that might be affected by a landslide. Usually city approval of the project in a landslide-prone area is a part of the sales pitch. People in Seattle who are comforted by this are being badly deceived. Permitting by the City of Seattle areas with a risk of landslide exposes people to greater risk of liability, not less.

Before Seattle will issue a building permit for a project in a “sensitive area” it requires that an indemnity agreement be signed. It requires such an agreement even for a permit to conduct repairs. The agreement is recorded and purports to bind everyone who late comes into ownership. These agreements are harshly anti-consumer and shift risk from the city to homeowners and other property owners.

An example of this occurred in a case called 1515Lakeview Boulevard Association, where the developer built a condominium on a hillside consisting of landfill. He recorded the indemnity agreement but did not mention this to the unit buyers. When the condominium was destroyed in a landslide the city pulled out the agreement and figuratively waived it in the buyers’ faces. The developer had sold the units and for practical purposes was gone from the scene.

The terms of the indemnity agreement are in my mind unconscionable. For a developer who is going to sell the project to consumers the agreement is not a big problem because the burden will fall on the buyers. Residential condominia that are damaged by a landslide cannot be repaired without the owners signing an indemnity agreement. The consumers have the choice of signing the agreement or abandoning their homes, which will subject them to other liability.

If they sign the agreement, they among other things are bound to pay all the City’s expenses if it is sued and not solely responsible. They become liable if they do not keep the City informed of subsequent developments. In this way the economic burden of an avoidable disaster is shifted from the City (and the developer) to the innocent purchaser who has had no involvement or opportunity to protect himself or herself.