Notes from today’s Council meetings

This afternoon the Council wrapped up most of its pre-budget business; from here on the Monday meetings should get pretty short until December.

Here’s what went down today.

This afternoon the Council passed a bill allowing developers to transfer development rights from land parcels in Pierce and Snohomish Counties into Seattle. The city already has such a program in place with King County. The programs allow for protection of farm and forest land, while adding more density in Seattle.

The Council also gave final approval to two bills containing annual updates to the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The first bill renamed “single family” zones to “neighborhood commercial,” a change that the Seattle Planning Commission has requested for many years. Councilmember Mosqueda, the sponsor of the bill, also made clear that this is the warmup act in the coming effort to further change zoning in Seattle’s residential neighborhoods in the upcoming 2024 major update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan to allow for increased density.

The second bill included a number of other minor updates to the Comprehensive Plan. While all nine Councilmembers voted for the bill, Councilmember Sawant complained that the city has once again not passed an amendment that would allow the city to impose development impact fees on property developers. An ordinance imposing impact fees may not be passed until the Comprehensive Plan is first amended to allow them. According to Councilmember Strauss, the SEPA environmental impact analysis is still being compiled by the city, and that is a precursor for a Comprehensive Plan amendment.

As expected, the Council also passed an ordinance rezoning property in the Interbay industrial area to allow the Seattle Storm to build a 50,000 square foot practice facility on a lot they control there. Currently indoor practice facilities in industrial areas may be a maximum of 10,000 square feet. As SCC Insight has written before, this is an obvious and transparent spot rezone, but the Mayor and the Council have continued to deny it. At today’s meeting, Councilmember Strauss’s ever-rotating “wheel of excuses” for why it isn’t an illegal spot rezone landed on:

  • it isn’t rezoning any specific parcels. Technically, that’s true; but what he isn’t saying is that the new zoning rule comes with a set of restrictions that narrow down the applicable areas to just a small handful of parcels that happen to contain the lot the Storm wants to build on — and that once the Storm builds theirs, the separation requirements will prevent any further ones from being built.
  • since indoor sports facilities under 10,000 square feet are already allowed, also allowing 50,000 square foot sports facilities does not add a new “use” to the zoning rules. As the Urbanist pointed out, this is equivalent to arguing that a 7-11 store is the same use as a Costco.

The farce concluded today with the Council sending out a press release celebrating the passage of the zoning change that only “may” allow the Storm to build its new facility — a project that Councilmember Juarez has referred to as “shovel-ready” — while also trying to get credit for how awesome this will be for the Storm. Yes, the Mayor and the City Councilmembers really do think we’re that stupid.

There was never any serious question about what was happening here: the zoning change was a spot rezone designed to allow the Storm, and only the Storm, to build a new 50,000 square foot practice facility in the middle of the Interbay industrial area. The only question was whether the city had found a loophole that would allow the rezone to survive a legal challenge, if one ever occurred. The city apparently believes it has found just such a loophole — or that no one will bother to challenge it.

Finally, the Council unanimously passed a resolution, sponsored by Councilmember Lewis, encouraging the state to decriminalize entheogens and so-called “psychedelic” drugs, and requesting that SPD make enforcement of drug laws related to entheogens a low priority. Once again Councilmember Sawant decided it was time to air her grievances; in this case, she is angry that the Council chose to advance a legally toothless resolution instead of the decriminalization ordinance that she has already authored. Councilmember Herbold, whose committee would hear the bill, tried to patiently explain to Sawant that the city is waiting to hear recommendations from its overdose and recovery task force on the topic, and further that the issue is likely to be an active one in Olympia during the next state legislative session — though she admitted that depending on what happens at the state level or with the city’s new Mayor, City Attorney and eventually Chief of Police, the Council may need to revisit it. Sawant accepted none of this and renewed her attacks at both Herbold and Lewis.

Councilmember Strauss’s Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee will be holding two special (and he hopes brief) meetings on October 25 and November 1 to consider a contract rezone petition. Normally committee meetings are prohibited during the budget process, but under state law there is a prescribed time window for the city to process contract rezone permissions, and that window will close before the budget work is done.

Councilmember Sawant is attempting to schedule a special meeting of her Sustainability and Renters Rights Committee in December — possibly her last one if the recall campaign is successful. The special meeting is to replace the one she canceled last month due to lack of quorum. She also needs a special meeting to be scheduled because under the Council’s committee calendar her regular meeting would fall during the Council’s December recess.  But so far, she has been frustrated in her efforts to find a workable date for a new meeting, and this morning she asked her committee’s members for “a little more flexibility” in order to book enough of them to meet quorum.

Council President Gonzalez introduced today a bill ratifying contract amendments for several of the unions representing city workers to adjust for the city’s COVID vaccine mandate. The agreements mandate a one-time payment of $1,750 for city frontline workers who were required to work on-site during the pandemic — though city employees are not eligible to receive both this payment and also the pay adjustment for those teleworking from home. Gonzalez noted that the agreements have not gone through the normal Labor Relations Policy Committee review process. She expect the contracts to come up for final approval on October 11.

In a hint of budget battles to come, Councilmember Sawant this morning registered her opposition to how Mayor Durkan has proposed using the payroll tax revenues in 2022, asserting that the majority of the funds are being used to “expand the already bloated police budget and other city departments” instead of housing and Green New Deal investments. She said that she intends to bring forward budget amendments that restore the payroll tax funding back to the Council’s original directive.

Councilmember Lewis, the chair of the Council’s committee on homelessness response, this morning praised Council staff for gathering together a comprehensive set of statistics on the city’s shelter and housing investments. Lewis said that he intends to pull the data together into a new supplemental report that lays out all of the data. He noted that the data shows homelessness on the streets tracking closely with shelter units, and dropping whenever new shelter comes online. To that end, Lewis also highlighted that a large number of new shelter units, including tiny homes, are due to come online between now and the end of the year.

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