Thursday, February 19, 2009

Isthmus Bills Heard in Senate Today

by Janine Gates

Above: Olympia City councilmember Joan Machlis speaks in opposition to the bills

Above: The packed committee hearing room in the Cherberg Building today.

Olympia - "It seems like there are millions signed up in support of these bills...." began Senator Darlene Fairley, Chair of the Government Operations and Elections Committee, as she jokingly welcomed "prime troublemaker" Senator Karen Fraser to testify as prime sponsor of SB 5799 and SB5800. Both bills relate to the isthmus area of Olympia's downtown. Later, after a staff count, Fairley said that 111 signed up in support of the bills, 30 signed up against.

"I think the city made a mistake of historic I felt compelled to act...." testified Fraser in support of her bills. Senate bill 5799 relates to the state capitol campus and the isthmus area as a special height district and Senate Bill 5800 would designate the isthmus area as a shoreline of state-wide significance. Fraser said she came prepared with a substitute bill to combine the bills if that would assist the committee.

In December 2008, the Olympia City Council approved a zoning ordinance to increase building heights on the isthmus from 35 feet to a maximum of 90 feet.

Fraser showed the committee and the audience who packed into the committee room several pictures projected onto a large screen, including Wilder and White's original state capitol campus design, the City of Olympia Planning Department's "big box" illustrations of what the possible maximum buildout could look like, and the vista looking north from the campus without the nine story Capitol Center Building.

Opponents and supporters took turns testifying, and organized themselves into groups. Testimony lasted for about an hour. Olympia City Councilmember Joan Machlis was the first to speak against the bills. Machlis said that "the city carefully considered the comprehensive plan process more so than any other process in city council history" and that the city council was "uniformly consumed for many months on the issue." Machlis was just the first to be admonished by Fairley for not wrapping up her comments in a timely fashion.

David Schaffert, president of the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce, Connie Lorentz, executive director of the Olympia Downtown Association, and city attorney Steve Hall, also spoke against the bills.

Enid Layes, former lobbyist and steering board member of the group Olympia 2012 that supports the new building heights on the isthmus, attacked Senator Fraser in her testimony by saying, "I regret to say this, but the prime sponsor of this bill never went on public record about this issue...." and called the legislation "unprecedented trumping of a local decision, which should be presumed valid unless appealed to the Growth Management Review Board...." Jackie Barrett Sharer, also with Oly 2012, continued the attack, telling the committee members, "you can all see the blight and neglect of our downtown...and zoning from on-high isn't helpful to us...."

Ralph Munro, former Secretary of State, Norman Johnston, retired architect, Michael Hamm of the Portico Group, and Gerald Reilly, Chair of the Olympia Isthmus Park Association, all spoke in support of the bills.

Reilly, a former chair of the Olympia Planning Commission, said in his testimony, "This is a very special place and a very special situation that warrants rare legislative intervention...."

Local land use attorney Allen Miller also spoke in favor of the bills, pointing out that the state has invested $250 million dollars on Capitol Campus improvement projects to date and that there are 500 blocks of land east of downtown that could be built on to accomplish city housing needs. "We don't need to do it is the Legislature's duty to protect their investment," Miller concluded.

Above: A beautiful day at the dedication of the Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial in May 2006.

Kit Ford, executive director of Behind the Badge Foundation, spoke in support of the bills on behalf of the Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial community. The memorial to fallen officers was chosen specifically because of the nearly unobstructed view northward out to Budd Inlet and the Olympic Mountain range.

Bill supporters and opponents gathered in small groups out in the hallway of the Cherberg Building after the hearing.

Above: Senator Karen Fraser speaks with bill supporters after the hearing

Reilly was optimistic. "I expect that the bill will be approved by the committee next week. All in all, I was pleased with the hearing. Senator Fraser was magnificent!"

The cutoff date for bills getting out of their original committee and moving forward through the legislative process is February 25.