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How a few West Olympia neighbors defeated the Bing Street Apartment project

A how-to article on protecting your neighborhood from bad development

On October 18 2012, Olympia city staff denied approval for the proposed “Bing Street Apartments”a six-story 119-unit apartment building located in a neighborhood of one- and two-story single family homes and duplexes. Just six months before, approval of this car-spewing, shadow-casting behemoth seemed likely. We were a small group of neighbors who knew very little about community activism, city zoning, or the city planning and development process. Over several months, we have learned a lot and in retrospect it has been very interesting and rewarding. The biggest lesson is that codes and standards were written to protect citizens and the livability of our neighborhoods, but city staff may need “encouragement” in seeing that they are implemented as intended.

We offer the following tips and resources if you and your neighbors find yourself confronted with a proposed development that seems detrimental to your neighborhood.

Connect with your neighbors and encourage action.

If you have information or see a sign posted about a land-use application, spread the news. Most of us found out about the proposal, not by the public notice, but through neighbors. City code requires that only property owners, and not tenants, within 300’ of the development site be notified and so many effected neighbors may not be informed. If Susan’s neighbor Brian, to whom she had spoken only once, hadn’t knocked on her door, she wouldn’t have known about the public meeting for this project. If I hadn’t received an email that came by way of another neighbor, I wouldn’t have known to write the city for more information.

But action is more important than number. Whether accompanied by others or not, each person who takes action matters. Our effort showed that even a small group of active people can make a difference. Of course gaining broader support would be helpful, especially if fund raising is required for an appeal, but isn’t required. Remember, do not despair if there are only a few people motivated.

Interact with city staff for information about the project and to share your findings with them.

Question everything about the project: the land use approval process, and codes and standards in both email and in-person meetings over the entire course of the process. Think of these meetings as informational, rather than confrontational. Besides the information exchange, it is important to show that citizens are concerned and paying attention. Be sure to keep managers and members of the City Council in the loop, even if you don’t receive responses from them.

Don’t be dissuaded if your concerns about issues that “don’t make sense” are dismissed. As an example from our case, the city planner initially assured us that the easements for ingress/egress (entrance/exit) to the site had been checked carefully and were found to be satisfactory. Yet it turned out there were incurable problems with the easements. Would these problems have been revealed if we hadn’t persisted with our questions? I, for one, doubt it.

Connect with the Community Planning and Development (CP&D) planner assigned to the project and with the Public Works traffic engineer, the Public Works’ water resources engineer, and their managers. CP&D contact information is found at http://olympiawa.gov/city-government/departments/community-planning-and-…

To gain tips, learn about previous citizen efforts.

We learned about the effectiveness of speaking at the City Council from Dan in his effort against the 7-11. When we started writing a draft appeal, we used the 7-11 appeal as a starting point.

Start your investigation at the beginning.

Start your investigation of a land use proposal by examining the Design Review Application submitted by the developer. Make sure it includes everything it should and that all drawings and documents conform to city requirements. If the application is lacking, insist it be resubmitted. If not corrected before the land use decision, the first issue of appeal may be that the application is incomplete and should not even have been considered.

In our case, the design submitted for the Bing Street Apartments did not include all drawings required for the “Context Plan” and those that were submitted did not meet city requirements. Had a correct Context Plan been submitted, the Design Review Committee might have seen that the proposal did not meet code requirements regarding neighborhood scale and character. So much time and effort could have been saved if we had just known to start here!

Take advantage of public records requests.

Olympia’s city clerks are very helpful, thorough and diligent.

Find instructions on how to request public records at http://olympiawa.gov/city-government/public-records-requests.

Examples of documents that may be useful include:

  • list of parties of record,

  • email between the city and the developer and others,

  • studies and design documents submitted by the developer (e.g. traffic impact analysis, soils studies, storm water studies, SEPA Environmental Checklist),

  • the developer’s applications and all supporting documents and drawings,

  • the short plat of the property and the preliminary short plat approval, land surveys,

  • and easements.

As an example the usefulness of project documents, while pouring through old email between city staff and the developer we discovered an issue regarding the street standards that might have been “swept under the rug” if the developer himself hadn’t asked about it.

Talk to the authors of the studies the developer submits.

The author of the soil study submitted for the Bing Street Apartment stated, when we asked, that he didn’t believe it was valid for this project. (It had been prepared for a different building on a different site.) We also compared the author’s version of the study to the version submitted by the developer and discovered an important map was missing in the developer’s version. Its absence proved revealing.

Become familiar with codes, standards and the city’s comprehensive plan.

Make sure you are a “party of record”.

If you communicate with the city by phone, email, or in person regarding a proposed development, your name is supposed to be added to a list of folks the city is required to keep informed. Only parties of record have the right to appeal a land use approval.

Make sure you are on that list. Write to the city with a request to be made a party of record and to be kept informed about the project. Your letter or email must include your address. Afterward do a public records request with the city clerk asking for the list of parties of record for the project to ensure you are in fact on the list.

I requested to be party of record three times before I was successfuldespite assurances that I was. Hence, initially I was not kept informed by the city and missed an important public meeting. Had I not spoken to a neighbor, I would not have learned that the project was proceeding and I might not have become involved in the effort to defeat it.

Speak to the City Council and the City Manager at their Tuesday evening meetings.

Begin working on an appeal of a possible land use approval early.

You have only two weeks after the land use decision is made to submit an appeal, which is not long considering how detailed it needs to be. To counter that limitation, you can use an early draft strategically prior to the decision.

Big tip about appeals: Focus on getting a denial by the Site Plan Review Committee or earlier to avoid the expense and effort of an appeal.

WIP note: Too often people are unprepared to deal with the bureaucracy of government and expend a great deal of energy trying to learn the ins and outs. And then, when it’s all over, what they have learned is knowledge they may never need again.

Carolyn Roos has given us a great gift in writing what she and her neighbors experienced. Maybe you will never need this knowledge, but if you do, you’ll be ready (but only if you save this article). Tear it out and put it in a safe place, especially if you live in Olympia!

 

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