“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.”
[New Statesman interview, 7 January 1939]”
― Winston S. Churchill
This is around 18 pages when printed.
The City of Sammamish has tried to keep an arm’s length to final development of the East Lake Sammamish Trail, but this hear-no- evil, speak-no-evil, see-no-evil approach began to unravel last year as King County’s over zealous approach to building the North end spurred outrage among homeowners.
A review of two years’ of emails, videos of Council meetings, conversations with city council members and homeowners along the Trail paints a picture of:
- a complacent city staff routinely engaged with the County that kept the City Council in the dark;
- frustrated property owners reaching out to the County and City;
- a City Council that didn’t want to know what was going on;
- inflighting among Council Members, who largely tried to ignore the one Council Member who was raising red flags about the County’s development of the Northern most section of the Lake Trail;
- a City Council that ignored homeowners who complained; and
- a City Council that finally awakened to the issues but remains muddled about what to do next.
Trail development pre-dates incorporation
Development of the East Lake Sammamish Trail is older than the City of Sammamish and, if not as controversial in the beginning, remains a thorn in the side of property owners along the trail, the County and the City.
I won’t go into the long, sordid history of the conversion of the Burlington Northern Railway from an active rail system to a trail connecting Marymoor Park with the trails to the mountains. However, some context is necessary to understand today’s dynamics.
Before Sammamish was incorporated in a 1998 vote, effective in 1999, King County pursued purchase of the railway corridor. There were legal challenges that remain to this day. Charges, with some justification, that the County was (ahem) railroading property owners were rife. The controversy became a major issue in the 1999 election of the first Sammamish City Council. Although the City Council is officially non-partisan, six Republicans, five of whom were on record as being opposed to the Trail, and one Democrat, Kathy Huckabay, were elected. The new City, at the direction of the Republican-dominated Council, assumed environmental review and permitting jurisdiction over the Trail—and began doing what it could to block development of what became known as the Interim Trail that is now subject to permanent development.
The next Council election, in 2001, saw Republican Phil Dyer defeated
by Michele Petitti, whose political and environmental leanings were decidedly Democratic. But the conservative Republicans still controlled the Council, with a solid four votes. The fifth Republican, Don Gerend, was a moderate by the standards of the day (he’d be considered a RINO by today’s far-right standards) and he frequently voted with Huckabay and Petitti in a 4-3 minority. Gerend has since become a Democrat.
The election of 2003 changed the dynamics dramatically. Mark Cross and Nancy Whitten were elected. Both leaned Democratic and environmental. This created a 5-2 D-leaning council. Republican Troy Romero, one of the original conservative R-based power bloc, had to resign when it was discovered his primary residence had become Southern California. The Council appointed Lee Fellinge, an ally of Huckabay, to the seat. (Bob Keller, elected to the Council in 2013 and another Huckabay ally, sought appointment to Romero’s seat, but Fellinge had lined up support before Keller applied.) Only Jack Barry, a staunch opponent to the Trail, remained of the original R-bloc. He was defeated for reelection in 2009 by Tom Odell.
Giving the County environmental review responsibility
With a 6-1 new majority supporting the Interim Trail, the Council took what would become a crucial step to today’s controversy. Sammamish entered into an Inter Local Agreement (ILA) with King County, turning environmental review for the Trail over to the County. Sammamish retained permitting authority. Gerend, Huckabay and Whitten were on the Council then, as they are now.
Contracting with the County to undertake this type of work is not unusual. The County contracts a variety of services with a number of cities. Sammamish contracts police and animal control with the County, but the Trail is the only development services contracted to the County. The City has its own Development department and processes all other development. The City wanted to wash its hands of the controversial Trail analysis, however.
The ILA has been amended once or twice since then. Ramiro Valderrama, who was not on the Council at the time of the ILA’s origin or the update, has repeatedly asked Staff for a copy of the ILA, but up to now the Staff hasn’t produced it. He was elected in 2011 and his term is up this year. He hasn’t decided if he will seek reelection.
Fast Forward to Today
King County is developing the Interim Trail into the permanent design, beginning with the Northern end, Section 1, from the Redmond City Limits to Inglewood Hill Road. Section 2A runs from the Issaquah City Limits to SE 33rd St. (roughly the 7-11). Section 2B connects Section 2A and Section 1.
The design is a 12 ft paved section with 2 ft gravel shoulders and a 1 ft “clear zone” on each side, for a total of 18 feet. A traffic lane on East Lake Sammamish Park, which runs parallel to the Trail, is 12 ft wide, so the Lake Trail is equivalent to a lane-and-a-half.
The County is also putting in retaining walls, fish culverts, fencing and new trees and vegetation where needed. Coming down are trees, fences, retaining walls, some of which installed by property owners (and some of which encroaches on the County’s right of way), and in some cases relocating or realigning driveways and stairways.
Property owners at the North end complain that the County has been violating its own plans, removing more trees than necessary, encroaching on driveways, causing damage to the environment and coming too close to homes (among other things). The property owners have also complained to the City that the County is violating City Codes.
The most visible result of the construction to those not living along the Trail is the sudden removal of scores of trees parallel to the Parkway.
A review of two years worth of emails in 2013-2014 paints a picture of a City staff that was in regular communication with the County but appeared to keep the City Council largely in the dark until Valderrama broke through the Chinese Wall in April 2014 between the Staff, property owners and the Council. But it’s been a lonely fight for Valderrama.
The email records show that Council members, notably Mayor Tom
Vance and Council Member Tom Odell, have a particularly testy relationship with Valderrama.
Based on the emails provided by the City under a Public Records Act request, it shows the North end property owners were in regular contact with the County and the City Staff, citing construction, environmental, encroachment and legal concerns. I’m not addressing the legal issues, for these are beyond the scope of this article, But the other issues are germane, and the emails clearly demonstrate that the City Staff knew what was going on—only to largely defer to the County.
A key question is just what Sammamish’s role is or should be.
“We know nothing!” And the City Council didn’t want to.
As recently as the November 4 City Council meeting, Deputy Mayor Kathy Huckabay professed ignorance of what was going on before April 30, when she first acknowledged more issues at stake than just cutting down trees.
Huckabay, at a council meeting April 15, took the position that the City had no oversight responsibility, saying it rested with the County. This harks back to the ILA between the City that originated during Huckabay’s earlier stint on the Council.
But it’s also true that Huckabay didn’t want to have citizens writing the City about issues. At the April 15, 2014, City Council meeting, she and Valderrama had an exchange over jurisdictional semantics and Sammamish’s role.
The exchange begins at 2:46:46 into the meeting.
Valderrama: I saw in the Issaquah Reporter that work is to begin on the north end of the trail. I had asked previously that we have an update on that trail project that is taking place in our City so that I would hope we get that sooner rather than later…since that is under our jurisdiction.
Huckabay: You did ask, but I want to correct that. It’s in our jurisdiction, but it’s not under our jurisdiction.
Valderrama: I understand. It’s in our jurisdiction.
Huckabay: But you said it’s “under” our jurisdiction.
Valderrama: For permitting to them, it is in our City, and we’re permitting it.
Huckabay: I know, I just wanted to make it clear that we are not doing the permitting…
Valderrama: We are doing the permitting.
Huckabay: …under our jurisdiction.
Valderrama: We are doing the permitting. We are processing the permitting in our City.
Huckabay: Well, I don’t want people writing to us saying that we want you to do this, that or the other thing [inaudible].
Valderrama: Too late.
Huckabay: Yeah, I know.
Her “yeah, I know,” indicates Huckabay knew more than she professed. Whether this is more semantics is almost irrelevant. What is clear from a variety of corners is that the Council Members could have known—had they been interested.
Hear-No-Evil, See-No-Evil, Speak-No-Evil
First, the email records demonstrate unequivocally the City Staff was engaged with the County and informed. There is, however, little conclusive evidence that what the Staff knew percolated up to the Council until April 2014, as Huckabay claims (though for different reasons). This, in isolation, should not be viewed as sinister or incompetent. In a City Manager form of government, the City Manager is chief executive officer and the City Council is, essentially, the Board of Directors. The CEO determines what information should filter up to the Board, the policy-making body, from his Staff so as to not burden the Board with minutia. One can have a legitimate debate whether City Manager Ben Yacizi should have informed the City Council of the issues before he did, but there is a great deal of hindsight in this question.
From February 2014, the City Council and certain City Staff began receiving invitations every month to the monthly meeting of SHO, the Sammamish Home Owners group, SHO tells me. (The City produced no emails pertaining to this.) Only Valderrama attended. The issues and complaints about the County, the Trail and the City’s oversight were discussed at every meeting. These forums appear to be the source of Valderrama’s subsequent verbal campaign to get the attention of the City Council.
Next, there was the March “Kilgore Letter,” sent to the entire Council in which, among other things, the City and County were threatened with a lawsuit over the alleged irregularities.
Also in March, on the 21st, the entire Council received the Draft April City Newsletter for review and approval in which on Page 4 was an article discussing four Open Houses hosted by the City at City Hall about the Trail.
The article said, “We’re glad King County has done so much outreach in Sammamish,” City Manager Ben Yazici said. “These are very sensitive issues for a lot of our residents so I’m glad there have been several opportunities for serious conversations.” (Emphasis added.) But not with City Council Members: none attended these open houses.
Furthermore, going back to 2013, a few City Council Members, including Odell, actually visited the Northern Section 1 to discuss and see some issues, SHO tells me. A few issues were addressed then but that was all.
Over-arching all this is Valderrama’s persistent attempts to sound the
alarm, attempts that were largely dismissed by the leadership of the Council (Mayor Vance, Deputy Mayor Huckabay) and Member Odell. Nor did Valderrama get support from the other Council Members, who at various times also swept away his call to arms.
Part of the problem is Valderrama’s own relationship with the Council Members and his demeanor, which has been off-putting and at times aggressive to the point of all but charging others with conspiring against him.
Excluded from some meetings with residents or other governmental officials, Valderrama takes it personally. Some on the Council believe his presence can be counter-productive in such settings.
Things finally began to “bubble up” to the Council last April, according to the emails produced by the City under the Public Records request.
April 17, 2017: Yacizi email to staff: Our council members have questions about the ELST paving project. Could you please coordinate with the County to get the answers?
Also could you please have the County representative come to one of our Council meetings to give us status update, project schedule, future phasing/s and the funding?
[Yacizi listed a half dozen issues for County to address at the Council meeting, which was scheduled for June 3 but actually occurred June 17.]
April 28: Valderrama email: …we get lots of questions from citizens and the ELST project now underway. How can the Council have real input into this major project in our City and that our City is permitting when we won’t only see it until the project is underway for two months? There has to be a way for us to get in front of the issues.
April 29, 2014: Huckabay email to Valderrama: I’m very interested in the questions that you are getting so would appreciate it if you could send them to the rest of the council so that we can understand our citizen’s concerns. For my part, the only question I’ve received regards some beautiful old trees and Laura has received copies of the County’s response to that individual. I suspect that you are hearing more questions as you live near and walk on the Trail.
April 30, 2014: Huckabay email: I’d heard about the trees but not the other issues.
Even Member Nancy Whitten, whose legacy on the City Council is that
of an environmentalist, was initially unconcerned. In a June 2014 email, she was full of praise for the County Staff’s work.
Thus, the record is clear: the City Council had ample opportunity to heed the alarms raised by property owners and Valderrama. But the Council preferred willful ignorance to looking out for the interests of an admittedly noisy, sometimes abusive set of constituents who have been, from the City’s viewpoint, a pain in the ass since 1996.
However, according to one Council Member who has quietly worked behind the scenes with King County officials, some progress may be forthcoming, but it’s too soon to say.
Who’s in Charge Here—and Who Should Be?
What is important is Sammamish’s role as the permitting agency after the County completes its design work and environmental assessment and applies for the permits.
Huckabay flatly misstated when she said Sammamish was not doing the permitting “under” its jurisdiction.
The email record shows a City Staff engaged with the County Staff on a regular basis, asking for changes on any number of issues, sometimes successfully but also meeting with County resistance and refusal to make changes to the Trail design and alignment. The record indicates a pliant City Staff despite the oversight authority it has as the permitting agency.
That aside, Huckabay’s efforts to suggest the City has no responsibility are at odds with the legal opinion of the County’s Prosecuting Attorney’s office. The office, the legal advisor to the County, says the County is a contracting agency to the City, just like the Sheriff’s Office contracts with Sammamish to supply police service, and that Sammamish is responsible for its codes and input.
In a six page November 26 letter from the office, signed by Barbara Fleming, Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, to Sam Rodabough, an SHO, the association of property owners who live along the Trail, Fleming makes it clear that from the County’s perspective, they are under contract to Sammamish and Sammamish is calling the shots.
“…The City of Sammamish, like all other permitting jurisdictions, needs to ensure that it can direct changes and modifications [to the County’s department doing the work] in response to the City’s code and other permitting requirements,” writes Fleming. If timely comments aren’t submitted to the County by interested parties, “it would be more difficult and costly to incorporate changes to the design in response to the City’s input.” (Emphasis added.)
Fleming makes the County’s position vis-à-vis Sammamish clear elsewhere in the letter.
“The City of Sammamish made the decision to contract for DPER’s services [Department of Permitting and Environmental Review] just as it contracts with the King County’s Sheriff’s office for police services…. DPER is taking direction on code interpretation and other matters from the City of Sammamish.” (Emphasis added.)
“DPER applied all of the relevant City of Sammamish code provisions to this proposal.” [The Lake Trail development.] “To be clear, the application code provisions and the ones that DPER has applied to this project are the City of Sammamish’s Code provisions.”
The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office opinion is shared, at least in part, by Mayor Vance. In an email dated Oct. 29, 2014, to Valderrama, the City Council and City Manager Yacizi and others, Vance writes, “Ultimately, any design/permit will have to comply with our codes, including access for fire and emergency vehicles…and storm water and environmental regulations.”
Failing to Get on the Agenda Since June
Even after the June 17 meeting at which scores of residents appeared before the Council, Valderrama has gained no traction in getting the topic back on the agenda. Odell wrote in an email there are “other priorities.” Vance wrote that there were “two ways” to get a topic on the agenda: through the Leadership Team, which is the Mayor (Vance), Deputy Mayor (Huckabay) and City Manager (Yacizi); or by four members of the Council requesting an agenda item.
Since Vance and Huckabay have opposed Valderrama’s efforts, this route appears closed. Because Huckabay and Vance are joined by Odell and Council Member Keller in a majority voting bloc, this route also is closed. Odell remains at odds with Valderrama over a number of issues and Keller, the swing vote, has remained loyal to the Majority Bloc since he joined the Council in January 2014.
There is a fundamental fear that having a Council-level meeting with a large number of property owners in attendance will result in an unruly meeting that will get out of control. A previous, well-attended meeting with the audience armed with flags and applauding in violation of Council decorum is cited as an example.
However, the lack of briefings to the stakeholders feeds on the perception little is being done.
(It is worth noting that a Council rule requires a majority of the seven member council to put something on the agenda; the US Supreme Court only requires four justices of nine to grant Certiorari, or an appeal, to the entire court. Something seems wrong here when our City Council requires more in principal and procedure than the US Supreme Court.)
At the Nov. 4 City Council meeting, Huckabay continued to claim that citizen complaints didn’t make their way to the City Council.
Huckabay (at 1:39:12): On the North End, we did not hear from people. People were unhappy but it just didn’t bubble up to the surface and there wasn’t that opportunity to be as proactive as we have become later.
Whitten (at 2:02:40): One council member has been trying for months to get the Trail on our agenda and it didn’t get on the agenda until more recently. I think had it been on the agenda, things would have come to the surface in a more reasonable fashion and maybe we could have done more for our homeowners in Phase 1.”
I understand the ELST will be discussed at the Council’s Retreat Jan. 22-24, but—it’s not on the agenda.
The Trail first appeared on the City’s agenda June 17, when the County gave an update presentation and scores of residents made public comment. Valderrama hasn’t been able to get the subject on the agenda since.
Valderrama has persistently asked for updates on issues since then, without much success. There is also an email record of testy exchanges with Vance and Odell and between Gerend and Whitten over various issues related to the Trail.
A New Attitude?
As Council Members began to gain a full understanding of the situation, for which Valderrama deserves credit for his squeaky-wheel persistence, things began to change. Council members are engaging directly with property owners. One Council Member said the Staff had been too complacent and trusting that the County would do the right things. Following a request from Vance, top officials met with the County Executive’s Office. One Council Member said he is “encouraged” that the County “may” be more flexible in Sections 2A and 2B. But, as yet, there is no guarantee.
Skeptics have little faith in the County, however—or the City.
Of some concern is that three Council Members took a field trip to the Mint Grove portion of Section 2B for a personal inspection and to talk with property owners. While this is good and needed, it misses the more immediate mark, and this is Section 2A. Section 2A, the portion between Issaquah and 33rd (the 7-11) is next up for permanent development and design is nearly 60% complete. Public comments were due October 29 (see my post). City Council members have not, to my knowledge, made a field trip to Section 2A.
Who has final say?
The County is designing the Trail and doing the environmental review, but it is doing so under an ILA with Sammamish that the County’s legal advisor says is a contract. Under this contract, the County takes direction from the City and must comply with all of the relevant Sammamish codes.
As the permitting agency, Sammamish has the final call (absent any appeals and lawsuits, which may be wishful thinking).
Wishful thinking on the part of some Council members to wave away this responsibility is just that.
Nobody comes out looking good
The record is a sorry one, and nobody comes out of this mess looking good.
- The County is, well, the County: an inflexible thug and a bully.
- The City Staff is pliant, unwilling to exercise its authority and complacent in thinking the County will do the right thing.
- The City Manager was slow to wake up to the environmental abuse and disregard for the property owners.
- Some property owners, to a large degree, made their own bed with their tactics, tainting other property owners and their legitimate concerns.
- A succession of City Councils dismissed the lakefront property owners and SHO as a bunch of whining loons.
- The current City Council has ample opportunity to be aware and take action–but ignored these opportunities to become aware and take action.
- The infighting of the current City Council has done a disservice to the citizens they were elected to serve.
- And even Valderrama has to share some of the blame for the City’s debacle. Valderrama waged a lonely campaign to force these issues into the open, for which he deserves praise and full credit. But he has to own up to the fact that his interaction with other Council Members, an often accusatory demeanor and sometimes failing to pick-and-choose which issues are worth fighting for and which ones are best to let go, has alienated some members and severely limited his effectiveness. As a result, he’s largely isolated. But he’s asking the right questions and has stuck to his principals. His squeaky wheel has gotten some grease, but the bearings are wearing out.
This City Council has failed its citizens over the Trail.
Four of the Council Members are self-branded environmentalists: Vance, Huckabay, Whitten and Keller. Odell and Valderrama have supported environmental issues, though their political brand lies elsewhere. Gerend has a spotty-to-poor record on environmental issues, evolving into a property rights advocate but failing to assert himself into this controversy on their behalf.
As one observer notes, this is the most “green” Council we’ve ever had–and the City allowed the County to rape-and-scrape hundreds of trees in Northern Section 1. Property owners claim the County has caused drainage issues that didn’t exist before and have violated City codes.
This greenest of Councils willfully ignored the alarms raised, the opportunities to attend SHO meetings and open houses and isolated the one Council Member who has tried to look out for the environment and constituents.
The City allowed the County to do what it would never permit individual property owners to do under the highly restrictive Shoreline Management Program.
Sammamish officials have stepped to to begin taking action. The City Manager is moving to have his Staff become more assertively engaged.
- They are still trying to determine what can be done to the already-under construction North end, Section 1, to alleviate the situation or to retroactively try and correct some of the wrongs.
- Three Council Members, including Vance and Huckabay, met with Mint Grove property owners in Section 2B, the portion between roughly 33rd Street (the 7-11) and Inglewood Hill Road, and report a good meeting. But this is just a tiny portion of Section 2B. Unfortunately, Section 2B is years away from development. Section 2A is under final design and its construction is supposed to happen this year. The Council, in my view, went to the wrong Section at this time.
- Council Member Odell met with King County Council Member Kathy Lambert, who became involved on behalf of her Sammamish constituents.
- Vance and other City officials met with the King County Executive’s Office to discuss the situation and the reluctance of King County’s Parks Department to be flexible. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.
- The City Council infighting has to stop. The Council’s dysfunction is hurting the interests of the Citizens. The leadership is to blame for not stepping up to develop a cohesive relationship. Valderrama’s demeanor continues to hurt his effectiveness. Whitten, for different reasons and on other issues long pre-dating the ELST, has been isolated for years. The City Manager, whose bosses include Valderrama and Whitten, is openly disdainful toward them (and they of him). Vance and Odell are feuding with Valderrama and on occasion Whitten. Huckabay and Whitten are feuding. Whitten is marginalized. Gerend is visibly weary and newcomer Keller is watching events swirl about him. Nobody is stepping up to solve the problems–and the parties themselves seem more interested in fighting than setting aside their differences.
- A Council meeting should be scheduled to have an open discussion about the ELST. From the emails I’ve reviewed and discussion with Council members, it’s pretty clear that even they don’t have a full understanding of what’s transpired since the ELST “bubbled up” to its level. If they don’t have a full understanding, then it’s a cinch the property owners don’t have a full understanding of what the City has been doing since then, either.
- A Town Hall meeting could accomplish the last point, but the Council has a fear that it will descend into a chaotic event. I don’t think it will, but if it does, then the Council will have made the effort and the property owners will have nobody to blame but themselves for shutting down this avenue of communication.