Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Planning Commission Tables Isthmus Rezone Discussion

By Janine Gates

The city’s planning commission voted on Monday night to table further discussion on the isthmus rezone issue until November 15th, when city staff will provide them with more information. Deliberation about the rezone was scheduled to last about an hour, but took three hours before the subject was tabled pending the need for legal advice.

The Olympia City Council, with three new members, voted in January to overturn the actions of the previous council, who rezoned the downtown area known as the isthmus as Urban Waterfront-Housing (UW-H).

Many community members - including several planning commissioners - feel this new designation was a "spot rezone," thus increasing building heights from 35 feet to 90 feet to accommodate Triway Enterprises' land use application for a massive housing and mixed-use building project. (For more information, see other articles about this issue at www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com).

The new council adopted an interim rezone for the area to revert to its previous designation, Urban Waterfront (UW), and have it remain in effect through the completion of the 2010 Comprehensive Plan update, which is currently underway. Procedurally, the council has a year to make this designation permanent, or it reverts back to Urban Waterfront-Housing.

On October 4, the Planning Commission held a public hearing to consider the proposal to rezone the property. Based on city staff information and public comment from that hearing, the planning commission tonight was expected to provide a recommendation for the Olympia City Council’s consideration. Staff provided the planning commission with two options: amend or not amend the zoning from UW-H to UW. The city manager’s recommendation is to rezone the property to Urban Waterfront.

After a couple hours of discussion, Commission Chair Roger Horn asked commissioners for their thoughts. There was strong support expressed to reduce height but several questioned the wide variety of undesirable land uses that could occur under the Urban Waterfront designation.

Lengthy clarification about the differences between Urban Waterfront and Urban Waterfront-Housing was made by city staff. Ironically, neither zoning designation requires housing, however, a bonus for height is extended to developers if residential housing is included. Both designations allow for parks.

Commissioner Carol Law expressed her dismay with having to choose between the two options provided by city staff. After receiving confirmation that the Capitol Center Building (a.k.a. the “Mistake on the Lake”) can be made into a hotel under the Urban Waterfront designation, but not under Urban Waterfront-Housing, Law said, “I cannot support Urban Waterfront. There are too many uses. We’re safer with Urban Waterfront-Housing and it meets our comprehensive plan goals. We need a compromise.”

Several commissioners did not like either option and wanted to craft a third alternative: Urban Waterfront-Housing at 35 feet, a zoning designation that currently does not exist.

As the commissioners pursued this path, senior city planner Cari Hornbein stopped the process to express her reservations.

“I hate to throw a wrinkle in this but if you’re creating another alternative, you may have to have another public hearing…I just want to caution - I’m not comfortable that you can create a third alternative without consulting the city attorney. I would hate for this process to get tripped up in procedural errors,” said Hornbein.

City planner Brett Bures agreed, saying that a new State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) may have to be reissued to make sure the determination is consistent. City community development and planning director Keith Stahley agreed with Hornbein’s concern.

Planning commissioner Richard Wolfe said he didn’t mind the extra time this may take. “We need to do this and get it right - let’s do it and get it right.”

Wolfe is one of several commissioners who have invested a tremendous amount of time and effort for the last several months working on the Shoreline Master Plan (SMP) update. The SMP update includes the update of zoning designations for Olympia's shorelines, including the isthmus area. Drafts of the plan will be made available at an open house in the city council chambers on October 20, from 6:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.

Amy Tousley, chair of the planning commission's SMP subcommittee, expressed concern about the timing of the whole process, as it overlaps with the SMP public review process. "We're making a decision (on the area) before we have public input," said Tousley. The Washington State Department of Ecology has approved the city's request for an extension of its SMP update to June 2011.

After considerable discussion, it was agreed that city staff needed ample time to consult with the city attorney, craft more option proposals, and reissue a notice for another hearing. City staff will come back to the planning commission’s meeting on November 15th with the needed legal direction and more information.

At 10:15 p.m., nearly four hours after the meeting began, Commission Chair Roger Horn thanked commissioners for their patience and participation. “This is tedious and painstaking, but a good process,” he said.