By Miki Mullor
On Tuesday night, the Sammamish City Council drew a line in the sand on over-development, forcing a potential pause on development until a much needed public infrastructure is built.
A split council voted on an esoteric traffic engineering parameter that decides what is the accepted level of traffic congestion the city is willing to tolerate.
In doing so, the council have possibly made Sammamish the first jurisdiction in the Puget Sound to be implementing the Growth Management Act (GMA) the way it was originally intended to – to protect the citizens’ quality of life.
Traffic raised concerns
When signs of over development started hitting Sammamish a few years ago, residents started voicing concerns over traffic congestion, schools overcrowding and damage to the environment.
Worried about being perceived as being pro-developer, the former administration tried to hide behind a misrepresentation of Growth Management Act (GMA).
In the city’s monthly newsletter, then-City Manager Lyman Howard said that, “By law, developers have the right to buy land and build new homes. Cities can manage and regulate development, but they can’t stop it.”
The article continues to say that “The state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) requires cities to accept new growth.”
As it was later revealed, Howard’s explanation of the law not only was not written by a lawyer, or reviewed by a lawyer, nor was it even written by Howard – it was written by then-Communications Manager Tim Larson – and it was an utter misrepresentation of the law.
The GMA actually prohibits development if there is not adequate public infrastructure (roads mainly) to serve the new development – a requirement called “concurrency”.
It’s up to city council to decide how traffic is measured and at what level of congestion the roads are considered inadequate.
In June 2017, this author revealed evidence that the administration manipulated concurrency to “always pass,” enabling over-development in Sammamish.
Independently, then-Council Member Tom Odell and currently serving Mayor Christie Malchow and Council Member Tom Hornish also suspected the concurrency system was flawed but were stonewalled by city staff.
Howard initially refuted the charge in public. Larson even attempted a “hit job” on this author and his editor by pushing a false narrative to the Issaquah/Sammamish Reporter. The attempt was blocked by the newspaper editor and the reporter was assigned to a different region.
Later that year, Larson was put on an administrative leave and eventually resigned.
Building moratorium enacted
The city council responded by enacting a building moratorium and ordered staff to fix the concurrency system so it reflects the drivers’ experience. It looked initially as if staff is listening to city council. The city tasked Fehr & Peers, a local consulting firm, with running the project.
The elephant in the room was the Town Center project, a massive 2,300 housing units and up to 600,000 square feet of commercial space project planned in the middle town. Major portions were about to enter the permitting phase.
But given the poor state of infrastructure in Sammamish, an honest concurrency system would likely cause a delay for years to any development project in the city, including the Town Center – until the infrastructure can be brought up to standards.
Promises made, promises not kept
The council spent the first half of 2018 listening to staff and consultants promising improvements to the concurrency system, so it will account for the congestion on the roads.
Then, in May, six months into the project, we reported that a shocked city council heard staff admitting the new system also ignores congestion, just like the old one.
Suspicion of intent by city staff to “run the clock” ran high among some members of city council. Our revelation of secret meetings and conflict of interest involving Fehr & Peers, the traffic consultant, didn’t help either.
Pressure to move on
Pressure was high from Town Center property owners, STCA (the Town Center developer), the Master Builders Assn. (the developers’ lobbyist) and three pro-Town Center council members to “move on” and accept a what looked like a worse concurrency system than the one that pushed Sammamish into a severe state of over-development to begin with.
Four council members were trying to hold the line against the tremendous pressure and an emboldened city staff.
Something had to give.
Volume to Capacity
Deputy Mayor Karen Moran has been around the block. A newly elected council member in 2017, Moran has been involved in the city business since incorporation as a member of the Planning Advisory Board, a Planning Commissioner and as Sammamish Plateau Water District commissioner.
Moran needed something that staff couldn’t push back on and couldn’t easily manipulate.
Realizing the difficult political position staff put the council in, Moran suggested adding back a traffic measurement known as “volume capacity ratio” (“V/C”). V/C has been used in the past but it was manipulated to use bogus formulas that give roads capacity for features like sidewalks, bike lanes and wider lanes.
V/C is a widely used index, well established in traffic engineering and was used in Sammamish for 15 years, so the data was readily available. But most importantly, it’s simple: it compares the number of cars passing on a roadway to a predetermined capacity number. By itself, it cannot be fudged.
In June, city council ordered staff to add V/C back to concurrency. The battle will now wage on the implementation: what the formulas will look like and what ratio numbers to plug in.
Fighting city hall
But as well known to anyone who knows the inner working of local politics, it’s very hard to fight city hall. Staff has control over data and processes, controls how budgets are spent on consultants and is considered experts in their field. It’s very hard for a volunteer city council members to handle agenda-biased staff.
As early as May, signs emerged that Howard was on his way out. In June, his long time deputy Jessi Bon resigned and took a step down position in Mercer Island. In July, we reported on Howard’s separation from the city.
With Howard and Bon out of the way, the tone and interaction between city council and staff has changed. Awkward discussions and stonewalling were replaced with positive and honest discussion in and out of council meetings.
Progress was being made on the new V/C concurrency.
Then, on Tuesday night, it all came to one decision: what V/C ratio should roads in Sammamish tolerate before deemed inadequate.
The Highway Capacity Manual (HCM) defines V/C ratio of over 1.0 as “flow at extremely low speed. Congestion is li likely occurring… as indicated by high delay and extensive queuing”
Council Members Ramiro Valderrama, Pam Stuart and Jason Ritchie – the Town Center cheerleaders – pushed for a high V/C, knowing it will allow continuing of development, especially the Town Center.
Their motion failed.
Hornish moved to adopt a V/C of 1.1, which immediately recognizes several major arterials as inadequate and thus conditioning any new development on improvement to the infrastructure.
V/C 1.1 is the ratio that was used by King County for this area before Sammamish was incorporated.
His motion passed with support from Moran, Malchow and Chris Ross.
Valderrama, Stuart and Ritchie voted against.
A decimal point in an esoteric traffic engineering parameter may have made all the difference in what Sammamish will look like in five years.
With the roads officially now declared inadequate, new development will be prohibited unless the city can show assured funding to improve the roads within six years.
GMA’s failure in the spotlight
It may have also made Sammamish the focal point of a long time observed flaw in the GMA: relying on local governments to manage growth and build infrastructure.
The local governments are in conflict of interest with the GMA: they want the revenues associated with development and therefore cannot be trusted to be ones regulating. The courts assume local elected officials will do what’s best for their constituents.
However, the history in Sammamish proved otherwise.
The result is inadequate infrastructure throughout the Puget Sound region.
Sammamish, with its challenging topography, no access to highways or to mass transit became the poster child of the GMA failure.