State Supreme Court says Landmarks Preservation Ordinance applies to UW campus

In a unanimous opinion released this morning, the State Supreme Court ruled that the City of Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance applies to UW campus — a major blow to UW’s efforts to assert its independence over what happens on its campus.

The case deals with More Hall Annex, a former nuclear research site (and quite frankly an eyesore), that UW wants to demolish in order to make room for a new Computer Science and Engineering building. The city claims it’s a historic landmark and may not be demolished. UW claims that The Regents of UW have sole discretion over disposition of all buildings on campus.

The Landmarks Preservation Ordinance was passed in 1977, and as the Court noted in its ruling today, has been the subject of arguments between UW and the city ever since. In 1980, the Court ruled that the LPO didn’t apply to UW campus, since state law (which preempts local ordinance) granted to the Regents of UW the power “to have full control of the university and its property of various kinds.”  But the Court noted that the applicable state laws have been modified several times since then, so it needed to take a fresh look.

In 1985, the legislature amended the language about the UW Regents’ powers. It now reads: “to have full control of the university and its property of various kinds, except as otherwise provided by law.”  UW nevertheless argued that the legislature didn’t intend to limit the Regents’ full control; the Court disagreed, saying that the language in the law is dead obvious.

There’s still the open question of whether that power can be limited by local law, as opposed to state law. The city argued that it didn’t matter, because in this case the state Growth Management Act explicitly says:

“State agencies shall comply with the local comprehensive plans and development regulations and amendments thereto adopted pursuant to this chapter.”

UW tried to wiggle around this by saying that they aren’t a “State agency.” The Court wasn’t buying it. Nor did it buy several other attempts at verbal ju-jitsu to escape the LPO, such as when it argued that this provision gave the UW Regents full control:

The board of regents of the University of Washington is empowered, in accordance with the provisions of this chapter, to provide for the construction, completion, reconstruction, remodeling, rehabilitation and improvement of buildings and facilities authorized by the legislature for the use of the university and to finance the payment thereof by bonds payable out of a special fund from revenues hereafter derived from the payment of building fees, gifts, bequests or grants, and such additional funds as the legislature may provide.

The Court (almost gleefully) pointed out that this provision doesn’t include demolishing buildings.

Or when UW claimed that the legislature appropriated funds “to demolish and replace the Annex and construct CSE II in its place.” The Court noted that the legislature funded deactivation of the Annex’s nuclear facility in 2006, and in 2015 funded construction of CSE II — unrelated, and missing all sorts of details like actually demolishing the Annex or the siting of CSE II.

Or when the Court claimed that UW is not a property “owner” under the terms of the LPO. More to the point, UW claimed it wasn’t a “corporation,” and thus not a “person” as the LPO defines it.

The Court did throw UW one bone. The university argued that the LPO was not properly adopted in compliance with the Growth Management Act. The Court refused to rule on this point (yet), saying that the proper first venue is the Growth Management Hearings Board. Since UW was not shy about raising the issue in the first place, don’t be surprised if it chooses to pursue that path.

Otherwise, it was a devastating blow for the university, and a big win for the city. The Court shed a few crocodile tears for UW in its closing paragraph:

The Regents enjoyed over a century of plenary authority over UW property. It is understandable that UW is resistant to changing that structure. It is also understandable that UW takes offense at any suggestion that it does not sufficiently value its own historical resources. However, it is up to the legislature, not UW, to grant, expand, restrict, or rescind the Regents’ authority. The plain language of the current statutes provide that the Regents’ authority is subject to limitation by applicable state statutes, including the GMA’s provision that state agencies must comply with local development regulations adopted pursuant to the GMA. UW property that is located in Seattle is thus potentially subject to the LPO absent a specific, directly conflicting statute.

The irony is that UW went ahead and demolished the building last July, and is moving forward with construction of the new building. So most likely, with the Court ruling in the city’s favor today and remanding the case for entry of a summary judgment, the discussion will turn to the damages and penalty that UW will be forced to pay for violation of the LPO. But since UW asked for a declaratory judgment — and got one — they will need to deal with the consequences for all the rest of the old, historic buildings on campus.