Few attend isthmus hearing

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

The Olympia City Council held another public hearing on the fate of the downtown isthmus Tuesday night, this time about whether an interim decision in January to drop building height limits back to 35 feet should be made permanent.

The council booked The Washington Center for the Performing Arts for the meeting to accommodate the anticipated larger crowds. But only 27 people signed up to speak at the beginning of the meeting, Mayor Doug Mah said, and the hearing was over in an hour.

As in previous hearings, opponents of taller height limits on the isthmus outnumbered supporters. Only a handful of supporters of taller height limits spoke.

The two sides stuck to their positions. Supporters of taller buildings said they were necessary to bring downtown housing and meet density goals set by the state Growth Management Act. Opponents of taller buildings said they would obstruct precious views, particularly as seen from the Capitol Campus.

Susan Collins-Scott said she moved here 30 years ago, drawn by the waterfront views. “It’s a billion-dollar view,” she said.

But Mike McCormick said dropping height limits to 35 feet would discourage developers. “One consequence is the message it sends to anyone interested in market-rate housing,” he said.

Former Councilwoman Joan Machlis, who voted in 2008 to raise height limits to 42, 65 and 90 feet on portions of the isthmus, defended her decision to encourage taller development near the waterfront. “We have heard for years that development is likely to first occur at high-amenity sites,” she said.

But Jim Lazar said the isthmus should be off limits for development – because it will eventually be inundated by water due to global warming – unless a sea wall or dike is ordered and the engineering and money found to build it. “It’s coming,” he said.

The council is set to consider whether to repeal the interim zoning or go ahead with making the 35-foot height limit permanent on March 9, City Attorney Tom Morrill said. If it decides to pursue the permanent option, the council will be poised to make a final decision in December, after months of public process.

The isthmus debate was the only item of business for the council, which held the hearing during its regular Tuesday meeting. Councilman Joe Hyer was absent. He took a leave of absence from his council duties after being arrested Thursday on suspicion of dealing marijuana. He was charged with three felonies Tuesday – two counts of unlawful delivery of a controlled substance and one count of unlawful possession of a controlled substance, for allegedly selling marijuana out of his home, court papers state.

It was the second big hearing held at The Washington Center in the last two years. At the last one, in September 2008, the council was considering whether to raise height limits on part of the isthmus from 35 feet to 42, 65 and 90 feet. Nearly 100 people testified in an emotional hearing that lasted five hours.

Local developer Triway Enterprises requested the height rezone so that it could build Larida Passage, a mixed-use development with 141 condominiums. It was slated to have two buildings, five and seven stories each. The proposal was later changed to have one 35-foot building and one 90-foot building.

It’s unclear what will happen to the project. A site plan has yet to be approved by the city’s hearing examiner, and that decision likely will face an appeal.

In December 2008, the council decided to raise the height limits. It was an unpopular decision that caused voters to vote out two council incumbents last November, putting council members who opposed taller building limits in the majority.

Those council members voted in January to drop building height limits back to 35 feet on the isthmus on an interim basis and to consider making the change permanent. That action triggered a required public hearing – the one that happened Tuesday.