Building heights options open

Isthmus: Legislature fails to block structures over 35 feet, but park supporters might turn to courts

April 28, 2009 

State, city represented at isthmus forum today

View of the isthmus in downtown Olympia from the Capitol Campus. (The Olympian file)

STEVEN M. HERPPICH — The Olympian

OLYMPIA – An attempt to halt taller development on the downtown isthmus failed to pass the State Legislature before the session ended.

Senate Bill 5800, which would have capped height limits on the isthmus at 35 feet, was never called for a vote in the House. That, and State Sen. Karen Fraser’s attempts to amend another bill to inhibit development there, were ultimately unsuccessful.

But opponents of higher buildings have several options at their disposal: a lawsuit, an appeal at the Growth Management Hearings Board and an attempt to buy the property that sparked the controversy to begin with. They could organize candidates to run against two of the four candidates up for re-election who voted for taller height limits.

“The issue is alive on several fronts,” Fraser said. She said the issue wouldn’t come up if Gov. Chris Gregoire calls a special session, adding that it would be out of scope.

The state bill could be brought up at next year’s legislative session, said Gerald Reilly, chairman of the Olympia Isthmus Park Association. His group gathered enough signatures last year to prod the council to study turning most of the isthmus into a park.

“If in fact the clear decision has been made that we’re going to acquire and develop the isthmus as a park, the (state) bill becomes less necessary,” he said.

Fraser said any action during the next session depends on what happens in the next year. She said she would monitor the issue, but she is not part of any litigation or appeals.

The controversy dates to last year, when Triway Enterprises, a local developer, asked the city to raise height limits so it can build five- and seven-story condominium buildings. After a contentious debate, the City Council approved zoning for taller buildings in December.

Almost immediately, a large group, including former Secretary of State Ralph Munro and the Olympia Isthmus Park Association, sought an injunction to the council’s decision. The parties agreed to delay a hearing on the lawsuit until after May 1 to see if the state legislation passed.

Now that it hasn’t, the lawsuit is free to go forward. It’s in Pierce County Superior Court because judges in Thurston County recused themselves from the case, due to perceived conflicts of interest.

Opponents are also appealing to the state Growth Management Hearings Board and may also appeal to the state Shoreline Hearings Board.

But there’s another variable – whether much of the isthmus could be acquired for a park.

Reilly and others favor a plan to acquire about 4 acres for the park, including the land where Triway wants to build the condos and the adjacent vacant Capitol Center tower.

Mayor Doug Mah is pushing a different plan – acquiring the Capitol Center property for a park and other property next to the Heritage Fountain, but leaving the Triway property alone. He proposes bundling the park acquisitions with rebuilding Percival Landing and asking voters to raise property taxes to pay for it. The price tag would be no more than $33 million.

Two council committees are studying the issue and are expected to give a report at the council’s May 5 meeting. The proposal could go on the ballot in the August primary or November general election. “I don’t think we’ll make a decision on May 5” about what to do, though, Councilman Joe Hyer said.

Though Mah’s plan is different, Reilly favors it as a step toward acquiring a larger portion of the isthmus, including the Triway property.

“I think we have to work with the City Council,” he said.

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