Isthmus height limit at 35' again

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 Olympia City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to return height limits to 35 feet on the downtown isthmus, and voted 5-2 to do it on a first and final reading.

A majority of the council favored moving quickly to revert building height limits to the way they were before Jan. 1, 2009, to stop Larida Passage, two mixed-use buildings, 35 and 90 feet tall respectively, which developer Triway Enterprises plans to build on the land.

But the vote might not stop the project. That’s because Larida Passage may be considered “vested,” or approved under the zoning that applied when Triway submitted its land-use application for the project last year. That means the buildings would be allowed, even if the council changes the zoning.

“Larida Passage is vested,” said Jeanette Hawkins, project manager for Triway. “Our receipt” for Triway’s land-use application “actually has the word ‘vested’ on it.

“Anything that this new City Council does to the isthmus does not apply to Larida Passage.”

Olympia attorney Allen Miller, who opposes taller building heights, disagrees. Miller said that the 1982 “Sato” case before the state Shoreline Hearings Board, which declared that a proposed 70-foot building didn’t meet the state Shoreline Management Act, would mean the building could not be approved under current zoning.

“At least one of our arguments would be, well, you may be vested but you’re vested under Sato,” said Miller, the attorney for the Olympia Isthmus Park Association. The group wants much of the isthmus to be purchased for a park.

In an interview, City Attorney Tom Morill elected not to give his opinion on the issue. He noted that the city’s hearing examiner ultimately must approve Triway’s application. That could happen later this year, after an advisory design review board gives its opinion of the project.

But don’t expect building to begin anytime soon if the hearing examiner approves the project. That decision can be appealed to Thurston County Superior Court, and that could be appealed to the state Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

Hawkins said a 120-foot building on the isthmus, grandfathered under old zoning, will remain.

“I think the result of going back to the old zoning will be that Olympia will live with the Capitol Center building for another 100 years,” said Hawkins, a former City Council member. “It’ll get remodeled and it will stand as a memorial to the new City Council.”

While Triway and some downtown advocates argue that the new buildings should be built to revitalize downtown, opponents say they will block views of the Capitol dome and Budd Inlet, and should be built elsewhere downtown. Whether to build higher on the isthmus became the signature issue of last year’s City Council campaign, in which voters elected four council members who opposed the height rezone. Those members moved quickly last week to enact interim zoning, a process in which the zoning can be changed immediately, instead of over the course of a year, which is usual practice. The council would then go through a more thorough process before the zoning could be made final.

The council will be required to hold a public hearing, which it plans within 45 days of final adoption of the interim zoning.