Isthmus plan in doubt

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

OLYMPIA - The new Olympia City Council wasted no time moving to undo the city's most controversial decision in recent years.

During the first meeting of the new year, the council, featuring three new members, directed city staff to bring them an ordinance on Jan. 12 that would create interim zoning that would revert the height limits on the isthmus properties to their former limit of 35 feet.

The interim zoning would remain in effect until final action on the update to the city’s comprehensive plan, its master land-use blueprint, which could make the zoning permanent. That action would occur by the end of the year.

In another decision, the council directed staff to notify the state Department of Ecology to withdraw a request for a limited amendment to the state’s shoreline master plan, another land-use action tied to the earlier rezone of the isthmus parcels.

The two votes were unanimous.

The final decision was a split vote, 4-3. The council directed City Manager Steve Hall to write a letter informing state lawmakers that the city wants to see legislation approved in the session that begins Monday to designate the area including the isthmus as a shoreline of statewide significance and establish a special height district. That would limit the heights of new and remodeled buildings in it to 35 feet.

“It’s a precious view that we all need to cherish and save for all the citizens of the state of Washington,” Councilwoman Jeannine Roe said.

Mayor Doug Mah and council members Rhenda Strub and Craig Ottavelli voted no, saying they couldn’t support legislation that would surrender local control to the state.

The council’s action is not a surprise, although the speed at which it occurred might be. The three new council members opposed the preceding council’s action to raise height limits on the isthmus.

With the decisions, Councilwoman Karen Rogers said there needs to be a conversation about the future of the isthmus.

“I think the community has spoken on what the community doesn’t want,” she said.

The council’s action thrilled Jerry Reilly, chairman Olympia Isthmus Park Association, which has opposed the rezone.

“Ain’t democracy grand?,” he said after the meeting. “The new members of the council plus Joe Hyer performed magnificently, and the old members of the council showed a real willingness to cooperate with the new vision. It was very encouraging. To sum it all up: Wow.”

As to the interim zoning ordinance, Mah instructed staff to bring alternatives next week.

“There may be other avenues that the council could undertake that would achieve the same thing,” he said.

The council will schedule an executive, or closed, session to discuss the legal implications of the interim zoning before Tuesday’s meeting.

The council did pass the interim zoning, it would need to hold a public hearing on the action within 45 and 60 days. After that, it would need to take a final vote.

It’s uncertain what effect the council’s proposal would have on Larida Passage, the mixed-use development proposal submitted by local developer Tri Vo. One of the two buildings under the proposal would rise 90 feet.

City Attorney Tom Morrill said in an interview before the meeting that the City Council has the authority to revise the height limits again. He said it would be up to the hearings examiner to determine “what rules would apply to the project” if the City Council were to adopt interim zoning but the project before him was submitted under the height limits established by the preceding council; Vo’s representatives submitted the project in October. The hearings examiner’s decision can be appealed to Thurston County Superior Court. It’s unclear when the project will come before the hearings examiner.

In other meeting news:

 • Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch and Olympia Municipal Judge Scott Ahlf took turns swearing in the three new council members Stephen Buxbaum, Jeannine Roe and Karen Rogers at the beginning of the first meeting of the new year. Incumbent Joe Hyer began his new four-year term.

Mayor Doug Mah introduced the new council, which received a standing ovation from the audience in the packed council chambers. In brief remarks, the new council members thanked voters for electing them and said they were ready to take on the challenging work of leading the community.

 • The council appointed Hyer mayor pro tem for the next two years with a unanimous vote. The mayor pro tem serves in the absence of the mayor.

Ottavelli, who moved for the appointment, cited Hyer’s experience on the council and said he has “shown leadership and consideration and ability to help bring sometimes disparate council members together on issues and move our community forward. ... I’m confident he’ll do that for us as mayor pro tem.”

Hyer said he was honored by the appointment and was ready to support the council toward achieving community goals. The new mayor pro tem has announced his candidacy for county treasurer but vowed at the meeting that the campaign would not compromise his commitment to the council. “I can assure you right now that I won’t let any of those (campaign activities) divert me from my role,” he said.

 • The City Council moved to amend the Parking and Business Improvement Area so the Olympia Downtown Association no longer is responsible for resolving ratepayer disputes and handling collections; the city would handle those tasks. It now contracts with the ODA to serve as program manager for the assessment district. A staff report notes the change would “alleviate the tension” among ratepayers, the city and ODA. Another change would clearly exempt nonprofits from paying the annual assessment.

The assessments collected from businesses and apartment owners in the area are used to provide parking improvements, pay for beautification projects and to help recruit and retain businesses.