Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Now in the House: Isthmus Bill ESSB 5800

by Janine Gates

Above: Former Secretary of State Ralph Munro's cellphone goes off - with a very "old school" ringtone - at the beginning of his testimony, much to everyone's amusement.

“A good chunk of my hometown is here behind me today…” said House Local Government and Housing legislative staff member Ethan Moreno as he began explaining the background of ESSB 5800 to committee members.

Indeed, the scene was familiar: the hearing room was packed, the testimony was well rehearsed and many of the players were the same, but the real audience, the House committee chaired by Representative Geoff Simpson, was different, and no one took anything for granted.

Senator Karen Fraser explained her bill to establish the isthmus in downtown Olympia as a "shoreline of statewide significance," complete with a PowerPoint slideshow. Representative Sam Hunt also spoke, and panels consisting of several people each proceeded to make their arguments for and against the bill.
To thwart concerns about why the committee should have anything to do with this issue, Hunt explained to his colleagues, “We don’t enter into this fray lightly…we do support downtown housing, but this is a state capitol and the state has been investing millions into this area for years…this is not a NIMBY thing. What we're doing here is different than Federal Way, Spokane, Yakima…or Roslyn..." Hunt teased, resulting in laughter from everyone. Committee member and Minority Whip Representative Bill Hinkle's district includes Roslyn, Washington.

Committee members Angel, Cox and Hinkle asked clarifying questions.

Many of the same players who testified in front of Senator Darlene Fairley’s Government Operations and Elections Committee also testified in front of Simpson’s committee.

Olympia City Council member Joan Machlis and City Manager Steve Hall testified for the city. They reiterated that they received 1400 written comments from the community, did their research, and admitted that most of the key facts about the issue are in dispute. Members of the group Oly2012 also testified against the bill.

There were a few, new passionate voices.

Richard Van Wagenen, a former executive policy advisor for Governor Gary Locke, spoke against the bill, saying, "Our legislators...ask you to substitute (local city) judgement for that of our city's elected officials, and destroy the only chance for owner-occupied housing our downtown has had in years. They ask you to do protect the view from the top of the bluff....I wonder why the state never bought the land."

Van Wagenen said he might support the bill if it provided money to tear down the nine story "mistake by the lake" vacant office building currently on the isthmus, "...but I know you have more urgent statewide needs in the capital budget, and I think you should focus on those."

Another speaker, a land use attorney from Seattle, was well into his testimony that the bill is a dangerous precedent against local government rule, when he surprised everyone by saying he is an attorney for Triway Enterprises. Triway owns the isthmus land in dispute. “They were my first client and are very reputable…Triway has always played by the rules and engages everyone in the process….Triway has spent $1 million in risk cost towards doing the project and there will be no compensation for my client if this bill passes….”

Melanie Stewart, a lobbyist who testified as a citizen, testified against the bill, lamenting that she and her husband, former Tumwater council member Wayne Williams, want to live in downtown Olympia “but there’s no place to move to.”

Testifying for the bill included Elisa Davidson, board member of the National Association for Olmsted Parks, who referred to the Capitol architect’s intentions.

“To this day, I remember the dizzying but magnificent view from the top of the Capitol dome that I witnessed as a scout years ago, long before I heard of the Olmsted's and their work….Our capitol’s dramatic setting is no happenstance. The site was carefully selected and laid out…and elements are still being completed in our time - most recently by the Law Enforcement Memorial. The capitol campus is no minor work. It is, in fact, a masterwork of one of this country’s greatest artists and advocates for the role of public landscapes....”

Gayle Frink-Schultz of the Behind the Badge Foundation, gave perhaps the most compelling testimony of the day. As the widow of Washington State Patrol Trooper Steven Frink, Ms. Frink-Schultz explained how she came to be involved with the planning of the Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial on the Capitol Campus which overlooks the debated isthmus region.

Above: The stunning Olympic Mountain range looks on as Gayle Frink-Schultz is being interviewed in May 2006 at the dedication of the Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial.

Frink-Schultz also explained the state’s heavy involvement in the project since 1999: site selection with the Capitol Campus Design Advisory Committee, stabilization of the hillside, landscaping and construction of a retaining wall as part of the Heritage Park hill and walking path - “all to create a place of serenity, honor and respect.”

“....I found a new mission in life after my husband’s death. Steve’s death taught me there are things in life that are irrevocable, things we cannot control. But, I also learned that there are things in life that are important and that we do have choice over….This is one of those times.”

Above: Family members make rubbings of their loved one's names at the Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial dedication in May 2006.


  1. Nice article Janine! Go ESSB 5800!

  2. Thanks, Janine. This is a balanced account with near word for word quotations.
    I especially appreciate the inclusion of testimony of Eliza Davidson on the Olmsted legacy and Gayle Frink-Schulz touching words about her personal experience and the Law Enforcement Memorial.
    The Olmsted information is from recent historical research.