OLYMPIA – A controversial plan to build five- and seven-story mixed-use buildings on the downtown isthmus has hit a significant speed bump.
A state Department of Ecology official said state officials aren’t inclined to approve the city’s request to allow taller buildings as it’s currently worded. The issue came to light in e-mail correspondence between the state and city obtained by The Olympian.
The Olympia City Council approved allowing taller buildings in the area in December. The Department of Ecology also must approve the move because state shoreline regulations generally limit building heights to 35 feet within 200 feet of a shoreline.
Exceptions can be made, but that triggers a lengthy public process. An amendment to the shoreline regulations must be granted. The city of Olympia applied for such an amendment in April, said Keith Stahley, director of Community Planning and Development for the city.
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Gordon White, manager of the Shorelands Program, said he’s not satisfied that the city’s submission has met state criteria for a “limited amendment” to the shoreline plan that would allow for the buildings. Instead, the state has asked the city to consider putting together a new plan for the entire shoreline, a process that could take two years.
“What we can tell ... is that it doesn’t meet the test for a limited amendment,” White said in an interview.
Stahley disagrees. He said the city will make its case again, perhaps in the next two weeks.
“From our perspective, we see the application as being complete,” he said.
Stahley said city officials have done plenty of work already. They have analyzed how the proposed buildings would affect views, held multiple public hearings and received “literally thousands of pages of public testimony.”
“From our perspective, there was, you know, a thorough airing of this issue, and it’s hard to imagine how much could be done from a comprehensive perspective,” he said.
Several scenarios could happen now.
• State officials could agree to consider the city’s limited amendment. A final ruling would take months. They could rule in favor of or against the city. If they rule in favor, opponents of taller buildings might appeal. If they rule against the city, the city could appeal.
• State officials could refuse to consider the city’s amendment. In that case, city officials have two options: they could appeal that in court or consider a more comprehensive shoreline process, which could take years, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of staff time. That’s potentially unappealing to city officials because they already are updating the city’s overall comprehensive plan in a tight budget year that might see more city staffers laid off in 2010.
• City officials could begin a comprehensive amendment process for the entire shoreline, a process that could take years.
One thing for certain is that the buildings won’t go up anytime soon. Triway Enterprises proposed the structures to have 141 high-end condominiums, as well as office, retail and parking space. Proponents say the buildings will bring much-needed parking and an urban edge to Heritage Park.
Opponents say the buildings will block views of Budd Inlet and the Capitol.
Opponents also have filed a lawsuit against over project, are pursuing an appeal at the state Growth Management Hearings Board, and are backing City Council candidates running against incumbents who voted for allowing taller buildings.
The state Department of Ecology manages shorelines in the state. The Triway project is only partly in the shoreline jurisdiction.
“It’s probably an acre out of the 4 acres that was rezoned,” Stahley said.
He said city officials are not eager to do a more comprehensive amendment.
“They (the state) should accept our limited amend and move forward with it,” he said.
Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869