Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"...and to all a good night?" Only if you act now! Please urge the City Council not to use the variance process to weaken Seattle's Noise Ordinance by eliminating public meetings and most appeals and by going easier on public construction projects

In a pretty fair impersonation of Scrooge, Bad Santa, and the Grinch, three members of the City Council's Transportation Committee on Dec. 16 slipped us a lump of coal by expanding the variance process in a way that undermines Seattle's noise ordinance.

Hardly in the Christmas spirit, they approved the Mayor's proposals (Council Bill 116204) to (1) give public construction projects (which, like private construction, now use temporary variances of two weeks or less) their own permanent "forever" variance; (2) eliminate the "public meeting on due notice" that is currently required before the City acts on any variance of more than two weeks; and (3) eliminate the public's right to a Hearing Examiner ruling on whether a temporary variance was issued improperly. Expected to come to a full Council vote in mid-January, the proposals would be a historic setback to the public's right to peace and quiet.

Whoville's livability and Tiny Tim's health are at stake! A civic movement got Seattle's nationally recognized noise ordinance passed, and only a civic movement can save it. See below on the newly forming Quiet Alliance--but most urgently, please call and write all nine City Councilmembers. Background is below.

Noise at night carries furthest and is most intrusive. Disturbance of sleep is harmful--and is sometimes used for torture. For good reason, the noise ordinance (Seattle Municipal Code 25.08) strongly limits noise, especially at night. Adopted in 1978 by an enlightened Mayor and City Council, the ordinance expressly commits the Council to protect the people's "sleep and repose," and declares: "It is the policy of the City to minimize the exposure of citizens to the physiological and psychological dangers of excessive noise and to protect, promote, and preserve the public health, safety and welfare."

Noise controls will be a fraud if the City Council makes it easy for agencies and businesses to get variances that evade these controls. Restrictions on amplified noise after 10 p.m. that the Council added to the noise ordinance in 2007, and the Mayor and Council's good current proposal to reduce to 7 p.m. from the current 10 p.m. the evening hours when construction noise is allowed in residential areas--these controls are less than meet the eye because a temporary variance can set them aside, and they will be further diminished by eliminating the public's right to a Hearing Examiner ruling on whether such a variance was issued properly.

Administrative appeals to the Hearing Examiner were established to be inexpensive and citizen-friendly; eliminating them would leave citizens the unrealistic alternative of going to court, requiring a lawyer and great expense. The possibility of an administrative appeal keeps variances reasonable, and actual appeals force mid-course corrections when DPD issues variances too easily or without strong conditions. Without the public's right to appeal temporary variances to the Hearing Examiner, there will be no real check on DPD abuses.

The City Council must not accept the deeply flawed process that produced these proposals. The Mayor is also chair of Sound Transit, one of the agencies (along with WSDOT and the City's own SDOT) that most wants construction noise at night. Seattle's Department of Planning and Development (DPD) has been captured by these agencies and by businesses--all of whose noise it is supposed to regulate. Contrary to the well-balanced advisory committees, public hearings, and environmental impact statement that produced the 1978 noise ordinance, DPD cooked up the 2008 changes without hearings, did no EIS (which would carefully analyze who would suffer) and its "advisory committee" was private meetings with WSDOT, Sound Transit, and SDOT. Public interest advocates were excluded and not even notified of the changes being considered.

We can turn this around! Please urge City Councilmembers to do the following:

(1) Don't eliminate the required "public hearing on due notice" regarding proposed variances of more than two weeks. Do add a requirement for a "public hearing on due notice" for any proposal to grant more than two temporary variances (two weeks or less) at once to the same applicant.

(2) Don't eliminate the right to appeal temporary variances to the Hearing Examiner.

(3) Don't create a “major public project construction” variance. But if so, limit it to one year, with a new application, a public hearing on due notice, and a right of appeal to the Hearing Examiner for each yearly renewal.

(4) Urge the Council to send the proposal back to the Mayor, requesting that DPD provide it to those who have commented in the past on noise, conduct a series of public meetings, and consider public comments before making a recommendation, and before the City Council acts on the ordinance changes.

Scrooge, Bad Santa, and the Grinch did have a change of heart, so there's hope here for the Transportation Committee members (in fact, they say they're receptive to suggestions), and also that the other six Councilmembers will listen. Please sound off (quietly) to all! Below are the e-mail addresses and the voice mail numbers (individual messages are always more heeded than ones addressed to all Councilmembers in common). Faxes may be sent to (206) 684-8587, and the mail address is Seattle City Council, P.O. Box 34025, Seattle, WA 98124-4025.

nick.licata@seattle.gov 684-8803
richard.mciver@seattle.gov 684-8800

The above alert was prepared by Chris Leman, (206) 322-5463, mailto:cleman@oo.net, as an individual. Volunteers are Contact us to help the Quiet Coalition's organizing efforts or if you could create or host its web site. And please help by sharing this message with others, and soon. This issue affects everyone who values peace and quiet in Seattle.

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