Sunday, March 15, 2009

February Meeting Highlights - February 26, 2009
(Based on the editor's notes --- these are not official minutes)

Street vacations - a discussion with Beverly Barnett, Seattle Department of Transportation ("SDOT") , Street Vacation Coordinator.

A "street vacation" ends the public's right of way and changes an area to private property. The City Council makes every decision on a petition to vacate a street. It is a discretionary decision under state law, RCW Chapter 35.79. An abutter may petition for a street or alley vacation or the City Council may start the process on its own. The City Council or a Committee of its members must then hold a public hearing. If the City Council agrees, it passes an ordinance making the vacation. The street area then reverts to the abutters, usually one-half to each. The City may reserve easements or vacate only part of the area requested. The City cannot sell street right-of-way.

The City Council has passed Seattle Municipal Code Chapter 15.62 and Resolution 30702 setting out its criteria. Resolution 30702 runs about twenty pages. The vacation must be "in the public interest." In considering a street vacation; the City looks to these factors;
(1) Public functions, especially traffic circulation, utilities, light, air, open space and views protected by the street.
(2) Land Use impacts: bigger tracts often allow larger buildings. The development aided by the proposed development should be consistent with City land use policies. The City turns down applications for vacations in single family areas that seek to privatize street parking or build garages on dead ends, to just exclude the public for security reasons, to store material, or to control a hillside in order to protect views. A Street Use permit covers temporary uses, such as landscaping or gardening.
(3) Public benefit: In diminishing the public right-of-way, a street vacation causes a potential loss to the public at large. A "benefit" should compensate for the loss. The fees received go to the City. The benefit with major projects often take the form of a plaza, wider sidewalks, or some like tangible improvement; the benefit may be off site It must be a long term and for the general public. The petition must describe the benefit. Developers usually cite their project, itself; and point to the jobs or housing created in their development.

Street vacations are readily granted in industrial areas, but not in residential areas.
To start the process, an abutter meets with SDOT's Street Vacation Section and gets an initial evaluation. The abutter then prepares a petition, which needs the signatures of owners of more than two-thirds of the abutting property. The City charges a $450 processing fee, checks the signatures, and, if sufficient, files the petition with the City Clerk for referral to the City Council. SDOT supplies a form asking for site maps, environmental analysis, and detailed information outlined in Resolution 39702. The form asks for a precise description and a map of the right-of-way, the reasons, a description of the project, the public benefit, transportation/utility impacts, land use impacts, information about the applicant, zoning, circulation patterns, conformity with neighborhood plans, environmental impacts, etc. SDOT then solicits comments from community groups, business associations, City departments, utilities, and others who may be affected. After reviewing the information and comments, SDOT prepares an analysis for the City Council and a recommendation. The recommendation may propose conditions, mitigation measures, and reservations for utilities. The SDOT analysis sets out its process, a summary of comments (pro and con), and its evaluation of concerns and objections received. All SDOT analyses are available for inspection, and it posts an index on its website. Resolution 30297 sets out view corridors in downtown Seattle and makes an impact on them a very significant factor.
Alleys are not used for general circulation as streets are, and therefore alley vacations are more readily granted. Developers respond favorably to SDOT recommendations when they anticipate that the City Council will back up SDOT; they contest them when think otherwise.
The City Council's Transportation Committee will hold a public hearing; SDOT posts notice on site; and it sends notice to owners and residents within a 300-foot radius. The Committee sends its recommendation to the full Council for action. If conditions are included, the City gives a conditional approval, and passes the vacation ordinance when all conditions are met and fees paid. In addition to the $450 filing fee the City charges $300 for posting notice ($150 in single family residential zones), an appraisal fee measured by its cost ($600 for SF zones; $2,500-5000 in others); and a vacation fee measured by its fair market value (Ordinance 120607). When an abutter conveys property in exchange, the value of the exchange is set off against the vacation fee. Most developers petition for a vacation and file for a master use permit at the same time. Both processes run concurrently. If a street vacation is needed, DPD will not issue a master use permit until the City Council shows its intention, a process which takes 8 to 10 months --- traffic analysis often takes much of the time. The petitioner has the burden of persuasion. Most petitions are granted. With departmental concerns, the City Council would rather fix things than say "No" to a project. The City used to grant about 25 petitions per year; now, it's down to 4 to 8.
SDOT has no funds for maintaining street right-of-way that is in its natural condition. When a street vacation is ancillary to a major development, the City Council commonly makes its evaluation based on the overall project and, if the area is "under-utilized," the project carries the vacation. This was true with respect to the University of Washington's campus plan and the Harbor Island railroad yard sought by the Port of Seattle.

Citizen comments:
C-1: Indirect economic benefit is not in the criteria --- yet the City Council's determination on whether it approves of the proposed development seems to drive its decision on the vacations.
C-2: Developer plans may mark "public plaza" on their plans as submitted, but when built, those areas are set off as private. There is no effective enforcement.
C-3: The list of factors in SDOT's handout asks for detailed project information and in the "public benefit matrix" for "contribution of the vacated area to the development potential of the site" but not for tangible public returns, such as sidewalks and plazas.
C-4: Encroachments in unimproved right-of-way are obstructing a proposed walking trail that could be developed to Lake Washington in the Mount Baker Neighborhood.
Response: If the walking path is funded, SDOT will force out the encroachments.
C-5: The Design Commission review is upon aesthetics only, yet developers proclaim that its approval decides the public good.
C-6: DPD says that traffic analysis is up to SDOT and it sends the developer's (usually one-sided) material to SDOT. SDOT reviews the materials against its own files, without on-site visits at peak hours or talking to the neighborhood people, and projects go forward on inadequate information.
Response: The Mayor sometimes directs DPD to make the project happen. City acceptance of an EIS says that it considers the document to describe the impact of the project, and it is difficult thereafter for City staff to question the data.
C-7: Developers double count. They cite the same project amenity as mitigation for environmental impact statement purposes and as a public benefit for a street vacation.
C-8: The project on the Goodwill site at Dearborn St. gives the developer five years after the street vacation to start the project. That's a long time. The funding is not in place yet. Experience shows that developers put their priority on the moneymaking space for rentals and, when funds seem short, cut back on the public benefits. The public needs protections (now lacking) so that it will get the promised benefits.
C-9: There's an alternate development plan for the site that should be considered. Goodwill has a contract with the current developer. If the street vacation is denied, it would be able to consider that alternative.

Matters raised during the Round Robin:

Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement:
Senate Bill 5768 has passed the Senate Transportation Committee with a "Do Pass" recommendation. It would set the design of the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct as a deep bore stack tunnel and surface improvements as recommended by Governor Christine Gregoire, County Executive Ron Sims, and Mayor Greg Nickels, and authorize a tolling study. Citizens opposed to that plan are rallying opposition. Gene Hoglund, a member of the Stakeholders Committee, made a brief presentation and asked that the Federation circulate the opposition statement to our membership. The plan envisions four lanes (two lanes in each direction) of through traffic between about Harrison St. on the north and about Royal Brougham Way on the south with no exits to downtown. About 100,000 vehicles now use the viaduct every weekday; 34,000 of them use the Elliott and Western Avenue ramps. The tunnel would bar trucks with flammable cargos, explosives, nuclear materials, and oversized loads, moving them to I-5 or surface streets. The Sierra Club, the Magnolia Community Club, the North Seattle Industrial Association, and other organizations oppose the design. Parsons, Brinkerhoff et al. is doing the engineering in offices adjoining those of WSDOT. Estimates show the tunnel design to be much more expensive than an above-grade design.
[Ed's note: The Federation has not taken a position on the design of the Alaskan Way Replacement. Our next newsletter will contain a one-page statement from proponents if one is supplied in time.]

The Parks Department is planning to put artificial turf on lower Woodland Park athletic fields using ProParks Levy funds, which is not an authorized use in the ProParks levy. A survey of the citizenry showed that the public opposes the high-energy lighting and astroturfing there. The survey showed that artificial turf for sports fields is low on the priority list. Artificial turf sterilizes the soil by cutting water flow; the turf heats up when people play and it gets hotter at ground level on a warm day. The heat collects in the "plastic grass" and just below the surface and radiates up. The rubber mulch filler, manufactured from used tires, sometimes with used athletic shoe crumbs, is toxic to birds, flows off the fields into storm sewers and into our lakes, streams, and Puget Sound. Body fluids and spilled liquids soak in. The agricultural colleges and consumer grounds have raised serious concerns. Parks prefers to rely on statements made by the manufacturers. Motion passed to authorize a letter to appropriate governmental officials and to have Kris Fuller speak at the March 9th hearing on behalf of the Federation opposing the artificial turf on the basis of health and safety, neighborhood and environmental concerns, and non-compliance with the parks levy.

Nickerson Street:
Nickerson St. is the main arterial along the south side of Lake Washington Ship Canal from Fremont Ave N and its Bridge to Elliott Ave W. It skirts Seattle Pacific University. This arterial serves the university, waterfront businesses, and through traffic between Magnolia and Lake Union and areas to the northeast. The City is proposing to narrow the traffic lanes in order to create bicycle only lanes. This is of concern to the businesses that rely on this arterial. The City made this part of its Bicycle Master Plan, but did not give the affected businesses any notice that narrowing traffic lanes was involved.

Tolling SR 520:
House Bill 2211 provides for electronic toll collection on State Route 520 effective January 1, 2010. It will include a photo monitoring system. There will be no tollbooths. Section 6 (3) states: "... Payment must be made prior to or within seventy-two hours of toll facility use. ... If payment is not received by the state toll agency within the seventy-two hour period, the state toll agency has sixty days to issue a "toll bill" or a "toll bill and notice of infraction." "Toll bill" is defined to mean "the toll, a photo toll and an administrative fee." Section 10(6)(b) authorizes the state to issue a toll bill and notice of infraction within seventy-two hours of incurring a toll. The notice of infraction carries a forty-dollar ($40) penalty. In effect, motorists need to buy transponders. Those without them need to e-mail the payment or get it to Olympia within seventy-two hours. If late, the State will tack on an "administrative fee" and, seven days later, an additional $40 penalty. The 72-hour period is too short. It takes two days for cross-town mail now. Long weekends may put a holiday next to a Sunday for a two-day span. Those relying on U.S. mail then need at least four days. Moreover, some tourists and others who cross the bridge for several days in succession may wish to accumulate several days of tolls and mail in one check for the total. Seventy hours makes them subject to the "administrative fee."
Motion passed to authorize a letter to legislators and appropriate government officials requesting that at least seven business days be allowed before the "administrative fee" is charged and to publicize the addresses where payment may be mailed or made.

Dearborn St. Coalition:
Forty community organizations have formed an Alliance for Responsible Development to develop an alternate proposal to take to Goodwill. The plan would have 165 housing units --- twice the housing (including family housing) that the current developer offers, and 300,000 square feet of retail, and would be developed around a central plaza. The objective would be to show the City Council what could be done with the site. It has also been suggested that the City conduct a charette on the potentials for the site.
Motion passed for the Federation to join the Alliance for Responsible Development.

Neighborhood Plan Review:
The City Council has set a compressed schedule. The process will involve six meetings, three of which have already been held. The next is March 17th.

Open Government:
Motion passed authorizing a letter for presentation to the City Council, Special Committee on Open Government at its meeting of February 27th. It asked the Special Committee to publicize its meetings and drafts, consider suggestions from the public and comments on committee drafts, and hold some meetings in the evening or weekends for people who cannot attend during working hours; it pointed out that its work program was narrowing the scope of its charge. The recommendations include for the City Council publicizing meetings more than the minimum required by state law; including citizen stakeholders at the table at committee meetings to supplement City staff; unless emergent, postponing action after a hearing in order to allow time for written or e-mailed comment; giving clear explanations of the impact of legislation; and releasing legal opinions on a majority vote (rather than requiring all to concur) and legal advice on pending legislation unless a lawsuit is pending; recording executive sessions. For the advisory boards and commissions, it urged that meetings be publicized and held in rooms large enough for the public to observe, that the Open Public Meetings Act be applied, that meetings on controversial matters be broadcast and webcast, that ethical standards be applied, that all operate by Robert's Rules of Order, that draft agendas be available before the meeting, that minutes and decision documents be made public on the website; that public comment be invited; that upon request, interpretation translation services be provided for those who need them. It calls for restoring hours that were lost for broadcasting meetings of the City Council and City boards and commissions and rebroadcast such meetings;; and that meetings of City's boards and commissions be webcast. It urges that City website(s) be updated and user-friendly and include drafts of proposed amendments to Council Bills. As for public documents, it urges that the City adopt as a policy the Washington Attorney General's suggested model rules for handling of public documents; that it archive electronic documents for at least a year; that decisions on retention/deletion of records be made independently by an official without a potential conflict of interest; that disclosure be the presumption rather than being made only when compelled, and it be made even in cases when the law would permit withholding; that documents be supplied in electronic form if so requested; and that with small requests that the documents be provided without charge.
See for the letter and the forty-two specific suggestions.

Children's Hospital Master Plan:
The Citizens Advisory Committee recommended that Children's Hospital be allowed to add 1.5 million more square feet and up to 408 more beds. Laurelhurst's alternative plan would limit the expansion to 705,000 more square feet and 1100 parking spaces. The approved plan lowers the profile by putting most of the new buildings on the Laurelon Terrace property to be purchased. A minority report agreed with Laurelhurst and the letters from the Federation. The plan is before the Hearing Examiner this week for a hearing and review and she will make a recommendation to the City Council. The Stranger has an article about the dispute; it is full of errors and leaves out many facts favorable to the Laurelhurst Community Club.

House Bill 1490
: Transit Oriented Development AKA Sound Transit Area Development
This was the subject of February's newsletter. The House Local Government Committee amended the bill to drop the requirement that cities had to upzone areas within a half-mile of a Sound Transit Station for an allowable density of at least fifty units of housing per acre. However, it added more provisions to give non-profit developers a first option to acquire surplus government properties within the zone and more assistance to them. The Senate Bill still contains the fifty dwelling units per acre minimum. Rumors fly that the Senate Government Operations Committee will amend the bill. The Mayor and various cities are opposing the prescriptive requirements in both the Senate and House Bills. Citizens are urged to call their legislators to oppose the density requirement and it’s ghettoizing.
Ed’s note: HB 1490 appears to be dead and unlikely to be resurrected this legislative session.

Neighborhood Appreciation Day Cards are still available and will be circulated at our March meeting.

No comments: