By Scott Hamilton
The Sammamish City Council faces a complex set of issues interconnecting the Town Center and efforts to revise its traffic concurrency policies.
At stake is whether the Town Center proceeds per the 2009 plan adopted by the Planning Commission and City Council or, as some desire, the plan is reopened with the goal of down-sizing it.
Reopening the plan also allows the possibility of some advocating an up—zoning of the TC.
The city is under a building moratorium adopted last October. The council and staff want to lift the moratorium in July, but controversy over how to proceed with revisions for concurrency casts doubt over whether revisions may be ready by then.
Town Center Plan
The Town Center plan allows 600,000sf of commercial-office-retail (COR) space and 2,000 residential units. Previous city councils approved Transfer Development Rights into the Town Center, boosting approved units to more than 2,200.
The Environmental Impact Study conducted before approval of the plan was based on 700,000sf COR space and 3,000 residential units. Any more than this and a Supplemental EIS would be required.
The commercial and residential areas under construction on either side of 228th Ave. SE represent a small portion of the maximum allowable.
Developer SCTA owns or has under contract more than 70 acres, which is most of the developable land in the TC, but has yet to submit applications for development, including COR space and residential units.
STCA’s plans are a bit of a moving target in the absence of an application. In March, Matt Samwick, the head of STCA, outlined the company’s general plans to the Sammamish Chamber of Commerce. He announced a letter of intent with Ace Hardware to become an anchor tenant in the commercial development on the top of the hill on SE 4th St.
The same day, Innovation Realty Partners, which is affiliated with STCA, announced $30m in financing from The Benaroya Company for the development.
The Benaroya investment and Ace LOI provide credibility to STCA and Samwick, a controversial figure whose own credibility comes under fire by critics on Facebook, notably Miki Mullor.
Mullor last week was named deputy editor of Sammamish Comment. He did not contribute to this article, the research for which has been underway since March. He did provide certain information contained in this article.
Samwick, at the Chamber meeting, agreed to an interview with The Comment. He subsequently canceled the date through his public relations representative. Efforts to reschedule the interview several times were unsuccessful. The Comment wanted to discuss additional financing sources, more detailed plans and Samwick’s checkered past.
Samwick was a lawyer in Oregon who resigned the bar rather than contest state bar charges he improperly used more than $3m in funds from investors. Two investors sided with Samwick while others filed complaints with the state, according to a 2008 article.
The Oregon complaint against Samwick is here: Samwick complaint
Samwick’s resignation from the Oregon bar is here: Samwick resignation from bar
Samwick’s background was unknown to nearly all the current city council members until information began appearing on Facebook and council members were contacted directly by concerned citizens.
City manager Lyman Howard wrote in an email to the current council that Samwick’s past had been investigated and vetted when he first approached the city about developing in the Town Center and that he had been forthcoming about the Oregon troubles.
The information was shared with the previous council, Howard said. Ramiro Valderrama is the only member of the current council who was on the previous council that was briefed.
Moratorium stalls STCA project
The building moratorium, adopted last year, was an emergency action by the council; no notice was given to the community or developers, including STCA.
An email in December from Howard to the council and city attorney, Howard wrote that he had a telephone conversation with Samwick and that “Quite frankly, he is not happy with the Council’s consideration of a reversal on Town Center and told me that STCA would use every means at their disposal to protect their interests and investments.”
This was interpreted by some as an undisguised threat of legal action. In subsequent emails, Samwick denied making any such threat even though one council member quoted Valderrama in an email as saying Samwick had made such a threat.
The moratorium was enacted when Mullor, in June 2017, raised serious questions over whether the city’s concurrency model had been manipulated to avoid failing any development request. Mullor, in his first foray into public advocacy, was sharply critical of staff and their motives.
(This writer, having sued King County over concurrency on three projects in what is now Sammamish, was asked by Mullor to review the document before he presented it to the council. Some clear errors were pointed out, questions about other points were raised and a recommendation to tone it down was made. Sammamish Comment published a summary of his study once Mullor emailed it to the council.)
At the time, Howard denounced the study as “deeply offensive” and “inaccurate.” But he scheduled a review by the city’s traffic consultant and staff that, in the end, validated Mullor’s underlying thesis that the concurrency model was crafted in favor of approving project applications.
Revising concurrency modeling
Traffic concurrency is required by state law. This means that roads must be able to accommodate growth in a “concurrent” manner. Concurrent in this context means either improving the roads/intersections at the same time as the development or having a financial plan to do so within six years.
Led last year by council members Tom Odell, Christie Malchow and Tom Hornish, technical and policy flaws were revealed, including the fact that staff and the outside traffic consultant simply ignored adopted policies in creating the city’s traffic concurrency modeling.
The modeling had been in place, with revisions and updates, since adoption of the city’s first Comprehensive Plan in 2003.
With growth in Sammamish and outside the city limits that affects the city, traffic is gridlocked on certain arterials during rush hours, notably East Lake Sammamish Parkway, Sahalee Way, 228th and Issaquah-Pine Lake Road. Issaquah-Fall City Road was annexed to Sammamish in January 2016 with Klahanie. It, too, is gridlocked during rush hours.
Concurrency historically has been a two-part test: the volume of traffic on the road capacity (called the V/C ratio) and the wait time at intersections (called the Level of Service, which is labeled as A through F).
Dropping V/C for LOS
The current city council, after much debate, directed staff and an outside traffic consultant to come up with a new concurrency plan based only on intersection LOS calculation.
Mullor objected that instead the new concurrency model should be based on time-travel, contending this is the most realistic way to measure traffic congestion and traffic impacts from growth.
When staff recently presented the proposed LOS-based concurrency revisions, the flaw of this method was readily apparent.
Staff contended that traffic flow through intersections throughout the city actually improved between 2014 and 2016, despite new growth within Sammamish and impacts of new growth on the choke points outside the city.
Traffic counts through intersections declined and so did wait times, the staff claimed.
Traffic counts through intersections may decline for any number of reasons, not the least of which is traffic was diverting to other routes or flawed modeling inputs into the “black box.” Staff and consultants, it turned out, had not validated the modeling before presenting it to council—an inaction that is inexplicable.
Timing is everything
The council sent the project back to staff for validation, if possible. But the clock is running on the self-imposed July deadline to lift the moratorium.
If the validation and modeling isn’t completed by July, or the council finds it unconvincing, will the council decide to keep the moratorium to its October expiration? It could also be renewed at that time.
Or will there be four votes to lift the moratorium in July, as intended?
The vote will be crucial to STCA and its development plans.
If the moratorium is not lifted, there is nothing STCA can do except wait the moratorium out—or sue to have the court order Sammamish to lift it.
If the moratorium is lifted, what concurrency model will be in place? The one the city knows is flawed, or the proposed LOS-based model that as of today is not validated and may be flawed in its own right?
Either way, if STCA is ready to file its application in July if the moratorium is lifted then, the application is vested to whichever model is in place.
Reopening the Town Center Plan
There are discussions of possibly reopening the Town Center plan for reconsideration. How this would be done in the next few weeks or months is not clear, for this should require a Comprehensive Plan amendment process and this doesn’t happen until fall.
One group advocating reopening the plan favors down-sizing it. This has all sorts of implications, including property “takings” under the US Constitution.
Another group of property owners within the Town Center are ready to advocate a dramatic up-zoning, including as many as an 8,000 unit maximum.
The city council is faced with a dilemma of nearly impossible choices: retain the status quo of the Town Center plan, retaining the traffic impacts that were, in retrospect, based on flawed data; down-zone and face almost certain lawsuits for “takings” and damages; or up-zones, exacerbating current traffic problems.
The last is a non-starter with this city council. The first two clearly fall within the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t arena.
There is a court case directly on point to the “taking” issue that concluded the downzoning was not a taking: Land Use case.