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Eco-social activist/scientist sees dysfunction in the Olympia City Council

Authorities now practice top-down control, often ignoring citizen opinions for Olympia parking, public-safety, etc. issues. (1)

Gentrification vs. home ownership

The Olympia City Council (OCC) ignores neighborhood and climate-change concerns by encouraging rich Tacoma/Seattle people to move here, contributing to further gentrification and greenhouse-gas emissions. (2)  Hence, property taxes/rents increase every year. Note how hard Seattle’s African Americans have worked to retain a smidgen of their home district after similar gentrification.

Olympia City Councilmembers hear from the public. Photo by Amy Schull

In promoting rental situations via the Missing Middle, the OCC is derailing the American Dream to have healthy, eco-friendly properties and potentially tax breaks. Homeowners can get roof-top solar panels to reduce electric bills; and plant yard vegetation for better shading/thermal control, wildlife use, and carbon sequestration. Why doesn’t City Hall require solar panels for new developments like California?

Tax breaks for tree protection would help control urban heating from climate change and the “heat-island” effect (3). Unfortunately, Olympia allows the downing of large conifer trees (e.g., in the developing Lilly Road area), merely replacing such valuably layered wildlife habitat with a few piddly hardwoods along sidewalks.

Olympia’s Multifamily Tax Exemption (MFTE) is a city program that subsidizes private developers almost exclusively to build expensive, market-rate housing. Civic activist Larry Dzieza estimates that in 2023 the program shifts about $80 in property taxes to the typical single family home in Olympia.  MFTE allows partial tax deferment for 8 years, without any requirement for affordable housing. This may expand into parts of East and West Olympia as “yuppievilles.” At least Seattle now promotes mixed-income housing (4), whereas Olympia mixes expensive housing only with commercial development.

The “racism card” vs. neighborhood character

More recently, some members of the OCC recommended that the Olympia Planning Commission dilute wording around neighborhood character, for supposedly being “non-inclusive/racist,” This would’ve curtailed citizen input into preserving such character, but was fortunately thwarted with great public effort. Neighborhood associations allow anyone to help keep our living spaces comfortable and safe, free of party rentals with loud music via absentee landlords.

Protecting neighborhood character benefited LBA Park in SE Olympia, a great multi-use resource. Its impressive diversity of habitat types (wetlands, hills, forest, and fields) is enjoyed by surrounding neighbors. Fortunately, citizens convinced OCC that extending Log Cabin Road was a bad idea, potentially disturbing both hikers and nearby athletes in the sports fields. But the hard-fought decision will be revisited in a decade. No, it’s not “racist” to protect nature, but rather good for wildlife and people’s quality of life.

Near Washington, DC, I saw how building new roads just encouraged more development and traffic congestion. We’re a quiet neighborhood in the CRANA area of East Olympia, the major-unaddressed problem being frequent drivers speeding along Boulevard Road. Fortunately, we convinced City Hall to commission Habitat for Humanity to build mostly low-income housing there, for the flat/dry field that’s road-side, a better idea than multifamily housing within LBA Park Woods.

As a long-time county resident and minority, I consider OCC’s branding us as “racists” – for not promoting their development mandates – as ageist expansionism to cynically turn Olympia into a mini-version of the Seattle/Tacoma metropolis. Such would worsen public-safety problems and destroy our “small-town” atmosphere for families and retirees. (5)

Vehicular vs. eco-transportation

To be more climate- and nature-friendly in our county, many of us use public, foot and/or bicycle transport. But OCC’s mandate to eliminate parking requirements for much of Olympia, to supposedly reduce car travel, could force disabled and senior citizens to walk a half-mile to bus stops from new developments. We may see “inner-city” kids who can’t leave Olympia to enjoy nature in nearby parks, forests, etc., a lack of eco-social justice. Cars parked along roads, instead of in new developments, compromise non-motorist safety as a misguided, “traffic-calming” device.

Another OCC push would urbanize local corners (often with just one small store like our Pit Stop) into Neighborhood Centers (NCs). But such development would worsen traffic congestion and make day-time bicycling dangerous, as I saw in the Tampa Bay area. Fortunately, the local NC effort has stalled, but the hired consultants recommended that Olympia (i) allow larger apartment buildings around NCs and (ii) expand commercial buildings into our neighborhoods.

In East Olympia, the haphazard nature of sidewalks and bike lanes along Fones Road is notable, where the initial effort built nearby roundabouts. After years of complaints to City Hall, they’ll finally improve non-motorist transport to nearby stores here. But will sidewalk/park projects elsewhere require a regressive (poor-biased) sales tax? Perhaps efficiency audits, as past councilmember/mayor Rex Derr once achieved savings with, could address City Hall’s ineffective hiring of more staff/consultants.

Moreover, the older bike trails along I-5 are poorly maintained, often with teeth-clattering bumps and an influx of homeless people and their trail-blocking belongings. Although Olympia houses disadvantaged folks in Quixote and Plum Street villages, many homeless still live along I-5, unlike for Lacey that has better solved this housing-shortage problem.

Finally, residents must fight City Hall over changed sidewalk regulations for new developments, but not current landowners who dislike disconnected sidewalks that thwart our privacy and wheelchair-bound residents.

Boondoggles vs. tax equity

The recently failed Regional Fire Authority (RFA) proposal for Olympia/Tumwater was limited in new services at public expense (7). This fee-regressive proposal would’ve disproportionately affected smaller houses and apartments buildings compared to larger buildings. Olympia paid ~$15K to mail a promotional piece for the RFA, spawning Public Disclosure Commission complaints (8).

City Hall is also considering whether to annex a large area south of LBA Park, notably the Wilderness area that’s largely on septic systems. (10) This pricey proposal wouldn’t pay for itself, given the costs of sewer-system upgrades and a new fire station that the RFA proposal was likely for.

Finally, the Sea Level Rise Executive Committee may charge the public for such mitigation, e.g., walling off the peninsula to further impact Budd Inlet biota. Olympia allows developers to build on its former tidelands, now with reduced shoreline setbacks for new buildings (just 50’) to worsen vulnerability to king-tide floods (11) and the next big earthquake or tsunami. As the City Hall and other important buildings grace these danger zones, they must be defended or moved at great cost.

Hence, please think twice about Olympia’s future tax proposals. If OCC continues ignoring our concerns, then let’s vote against their tax-and-spend plans.

No future vs. real change

Unfortunately, OCC incumbents’ promises (and past experience) for eco-social activism have suffered from City Hall politics, causing taxation without representation. This includes reducing citizen comments from 3- to 2-minute limits at most public meetings, and trading a “yes-and” approach for an arrogant “but” mandate (“We know best”) that lacks benevolence.

For incumbents running unopposed in November’s election, let’s not vote for them and/or insert our own write-in candidates, to protest OCC cynicism and mis/micromanagement. Most incumbents have overstayed their welcome, lacking the public conscience of Mayor pro-tem Clark Gilman. And let’s spend our money elsewhere with free parking, besides downtown’s eco-socially conscious businesses. Voting with our dollars for real change is needed vs. the financially ailing and spiritually bankrupt OCC.

Bob Vadas is a scientist, eco-social activist and long-time resident of East Olympia

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