Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ecology weighs Olympia isthmus height proposal

By Gordon White, Program Manager, Ecology Shorelands & Environmental Assistance Program

“Right on!!!” and “Good job, D.O.E” were two reader comments generated by The Olympian’s July 5, 2009, story, Taller building plan hits snag. As great as the applause feels – and in government praise is rare - it’s also undeserved.

Here’s the deal. There is a big debate in the Capitol City over allowing taller buildings in a four-acre area along the isthmus shoreline that bridges the downtown with the west side. Debate includes a clash of values: supporting infill in urban growth areas versus keeping building heights low to protect public access, residential and historic views of the shoreline.

These are local issues and typically are decided locally. But part of the proposed area to be rezoned falls under the State Shoreline Management Act. To allow taller buildings, the city has to make sure the change is consistent with its shoreline program. Under the voter-approved Act, Ecology must review the city’s shoreline program amendment process, then evaluate the impact of changes.

This is where the Olympian’s news coverage may have led some people to give credit where credit isn’t due. The article has been read by some that Ecology’s involvement includes an opinion on the proposed Larida Passage project.

As boring and bureaucratic as it sounds, our review is about the city’s process to change its shoreline program – not the underlying project.

To be clear, Ecology usually isn’t in the business of deciding the merits of development or local zoning changes. We shouldn’t and won’t be. Unless there are clear mis-steps, omissions or violations of state law in a city or county shoreline decision, Ecology sticks to its role of providing science and technical support to the primary decision makers—local government.

Deciding one project at a time where the best places are along the city’s shorelines for taller buildings and where they should be avoided is a problem. Backing into the answers to these questions the way the city proposes, likely violates the Shoreline Management Acts principle against uncoordinated and piecemeal development.

We think the city should do a full analysis of all its shorelines and then make height decisions that make sense given all the varying geography and appropriate uses. This is what we advised the city to do a year ago.

After all, Ecology provided funding to the City in September 2007 so the city could do a comprehensive update of its shoreline program. To do anything else would be supporting what we’re required to protect against – piecemeal and uncoordinated shoreline development.

We’ve offered the city a chance to prove us wrong. See our June 10 letter to the city and initial analysis of the city’s “limited” shoreline amendment (Outline of Ecology’s pending decision, Limited amendment analysis).

Ecology’s decision has yet to be finalized. And when it’s made, then we’ll be ready to take the heat or the praise.

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