By Miki Mullor
** Special coverage **
After four years of battle, in which city council was able to temporarily put control on over development, a one-two punch by former mayor Don Gerend and city staff ended the fight.
As of July, development in Sammamish can continue uninterrupted, regardless of inadequate infrastructure.
The concurrency measure known as Volume over Capacity, or V/C, that gave City Council a tool to prohibit development that exceeds the ability of infrastructure to handle it, is gone and so was a development moratorium that has been in place in hopes of restoring it.
Staff Delayed Environmental Impact Statement
In response to delays by city staff to deliver a required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on time, the Growth Management Heading Board, acting on a petition by Gerend, ordered a development moratorium to be lifted.
The moratorium was in place from April 2020, when the Board ruled that the traffic measurement control known as Volume over Capacity (V/C) was legal but required an EIS to assess its impact on the City’s comprehensive plan. The Board ruled that until then, the V/C should be held invalid.
A moratorium in such cases is common to give cities time to correct administrative and procedural deficiencies, such as in the case of the V/C.
The V/C was originally proposed in July 2018 by then-Deputy Mayor Karen Moran after a different method city staff proposed turned out to ignore traffic congestion.
But after city staff failed twice to meet the deadlines set by the Board to deliver the EIS, the Board ruled the city is in non-compliance to its order and wrote to Gov. Inslee. The City Council had no choice but to vote to lift the moratorium, with hopes that once the EIS is complete it will be able to restore the V/C, the only measure currently available to control growth in Sammamish.
Sahalee Way fails concurrency
The EIS had to be prepared to study options to respond to the concurrency failure the V/C recognized on Sahalee Way. A concurrency failure prohibits new development to be approved as long as the roads are inadequate to handle the future traffic. But such failure also requires action by the City to remedy it.
By law, the city has three options (or a mix of):
- Improve the roads to increase their capacity to handle traffic.
- Relax the concurrency standard (effectively accepting congestion).
- Reassess land use – which means downzoning areas in the city to reduce future traffic. (a downzone changes the use of a lot to allow less development than its current allowed use)
In the Sammamish case, the elephant in the room is the Town Center, with its 2,000 allowed housing units, (that represent most of the future growth of the city), would have been the first choice target to reduce future growth.
Since June 2017, when the public debate on concurrency began after this author released his bombshell study on the city’s mishandling of concurrency, city staff consistently ignored land use reassessment as an option to mitigate potential concurrency failures.
“Each time the possible options to handle concurrency failures was discussed in a council meeting, city staff would omit land use reassessment as an option – as if it didn’t exist – although it’s an established remedy in state law and court decisions,” said former council member Tom Hornish, “almost as if downzoning land in Sammamish is not an option for them.”
Rudat hired to change things; status quo prevailed
The hiring of City Manager David Rudat in June 2020 by the newly elected majority gave hope to the city council that things may change. The EIS project was largely seen as an unexpected gift by the Board to re-envision the future of the city. The EIS is a document prepared by city staff to inform city council on the impact on the environment of different policy options.
Two sources confirmed that council members were expecting all potential options to handle traffic concurrency to be included. However, when the draft EIS was finally released to the public and to city council in August 2021, a year in the making and 16 months after the Board ruling, it did not include a land use re-assessment.
In fact, the EIS included alternatives to support more high density housing, not less:
“None of the alternatives would include changes to land use designations or zoning. Alternatives 3 and 4 include land use measures that would incentivize greater production of smaller single-family housing types and more multi-family housing specifically dedicated to affordable housing or senior housing,” the EIS states.
The City Council can decide to pick one of the options studied by the EIS, and it can also mix elements from the different options to create a new option. But the City Council cannot decide on a direction that has not been studied by the EIS, in this case, a land use reassessment, and therefore a reassessment of the size of the Town Center.
By omitting a land use reassessment option from the EIS, city staff effectively decided that one of the options sought by the city council is excluded and thus not to be taken.
The EIS doesn’t hide its goal of ensuring development in the Town Center:
“This chapter [Land use] evaluates potential effects of the alternatives on land use mix and patterns, key transportation corridors and community centers, and the ability to meet planning-level growth targets for the Sammamish Town Center and the City as a whole,’ reads the EIS:
STCA stayed on the sideline in the 2021 elections
By only including options that ensure the Town Center development moves forward, city staff blocked any city council from taking action to reduce the Town Center in the future, unless a new EIS is prepared.
This could explain why STCA, LLC, the Town Center developer, stayed of out the 2021 city council elections, after pouring a record $116,000 into Livable Sammamish, Gerend’s Political Action Committee, in the 2019 elections: (RD Merrill Co is STCA’s joint venture partner in the Town Center)
(source: Public Disclosure Commission)
But 2021 filings with the Public Disclosure Commission shows that Livable Sammamish was getting ready for the 2021 elections but did not spend or raise any money after all.
(source: Public Disclosure Commission)
Special note for readers:
This marks the end of a four years fight to control growth in Sammamish. This fight was led by residents fighting special development interests, in a town that severely lacked the infrastructure. But as Hornish once said, after he left office: “You can’t beat city hall.”
As I said before, life got in the way of my work on The Comment. At the time of my departure there was hope for the city with an EIS that would have allowed city council to make the necessary changes to the city’s comprehensive plan – whether more roads, more schools, more parks – or less development, especially in the Town Center.
It did not happen – therefore this special coverage.
I do plan to publish one more analysis that chronicles the growth battles in Sammamish – for the history books.