Isthmus debate heats up council retreat

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 - Emotions about building-height limits on the isthmus boiled over Friday evening as three new council members and four incumbents sat down for the beginning of their two-day annual retreat.

The issue had begun simmering Tuesday night, when the council voted to drop building-height limits on the downtown isthmus to 35 feet on an interim basis, temporarily eliminating the 42-, 65- and 90-foot limits that were set last year. The council agreed that the item then would go through the usual 2010 rezoning process, involving public-comment opportunities that would include two public hearings. For new Councilwoman Karen Rogers, who opposes raised building-height levels, the decision was about more public participation.

“They need to vent more on this issue,” she said.

But Councilwoman Rhenda Strub, who voted for increased building-height limits, said the three new council members wanted more public hearings so height opponents would have more chances to berate her for her position.

“It seems to me that the objective here is to … let them flog us once again,” she said. “I want to know, How much blood is enough?”

Strub said that’s why height opponents didn’t vote for a surprise compromise that Mayor Doug Mah offered during the 11th hour of the isthmus discussion at Tuesday’s council meeting, a plan that would just involve one required public hearing.

Mah proposed dropping height limits to 42 feet by taking out language that allows a height “bonus” of up to 65 and 90 feet under some conditions. By doing so, the council would do what’s called a text amendment in which only one public hearing would be necessary – instead of an interim zoning.

Mah said his compromise would resolve the issue more quickly.

But incumbent Councilman Joe Hyer, who voted against Mah’s proposal along with new council members Rogers, Stephen Buxbaum and Jeannine Roe, said Mah’s proposal was different. It set the limit at 42 feet, not 35 feet.

“This isn’t a flailing of anyone,” Rogers said. “We need to get through this issue as quickly as we can and mend the community.”

Buxbaum said the vote wasn’t personal.

“I don’t want to cause anybody pain or grief,” he said.

The council vote on the isthmus reopens old wounds. Buxbaum, Rogers and Roe were voted into office primarily by people upset about the prior council’s decision to raise height limits. The limits were raised to accommodate Larida Passage, which is now slated to have 5- and 7-story buildings with high-end condos built on the isthmus.

The fate of that project is unclear; a site plan has yet to be approved by the city’s hearing examiner, and that decision likely will face an appeal.