OLYMPIA - Three members of the Olympia City Council are concerned that the council's decision in January to revert building-height height limits to 35 feet on the isthmus puts it in a zone that doesn't require housing.
“I think that a housing designation is the most appropriate designation for that area and for that high-amenity area in our downtown,” said Councilman Craig Ottavelli, who moved Tuesday to have the Olympia Planning Commission study the issue.
The motion failed 4-3. Voting yes were Ottavelli, Rhenda Strub and Mayor Doug Mah. Voting against were Stephen Buxbaum, Jeannine Roe, Karen Rogers and Joe Hyer.
“I feel strongly that at this juncture, this should be a citizen-driven dialogue,” Buxbaum said. “There’s plenty of opportunity for folks to bring forward innovative ideas for discussion with the planning commission and within the comprehensive-plan process.”
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The discussion dates to the contentious issue of raising building-height limits on the isthmus to up to 90 feet, which the council agreed to do in 2008.
The divisive issue cost two incumbents their jobs; they were replaced with council members who didn’t like the raised height limits.
The newly seated council moved quickly in January to restore – on an interim basis – the 35-foot limit that existed previously. That January vote also changed the zoning category back to urban waterfront, from urban waterfront housing. It triggered a process to decide by the end of the year whether to make the change permanent.
The main difference between the two zoning categories is the urban waterfront housing zone requires some housing; urban waterfront allows housing but does not require it.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, Mah, Ottavelli and Strub – all of whom initially voted for raised height limits before agreeing to the interim 35-foot limit – expressed concerns about sticking with the old urban waterfront zone.
Mah proposed that instead of dropping the urban waterfront housing zone, language should be removed that would have given height bonuses of up to 90 feet if certain conditions were met. That would leave height limits at 42 feet, not 35. He made the proposal in January, but it got no traction.
So he started the conversation again at Tuesday’s council meeting. There, Ottavelli motioned to have planning study the issue as part of their deliberations on the isthmus zoning issue. Strub seconded it.
“It occurs to me that there are some possibilities for development under UW (the urban waterfront zone) that don’t (exist) under UWH (the urban waterfront housing zone), and I really want to preserve, however slim the chances are, the possibility or rather the insistence of housing on that property.”
The city is overhauling its comprehensive plan in a process that will take, all told, about two years and wrap up next year.
Zoning, including that on the isthmus, is a large part of the plan.
Roe said she supports sticking with the interim 35-foot zoning.
“I was pretty thrilled with going back to the 35 feet, and I personally do not want housing on the isthmus,” she said.
Rogers said she’s OK with the planning commission considering Ottavelli’s proposal but added that the council shouldn’t highlight it because “it’s a matter of having a truly open discussion.”
Ottavelli defended his proposal.
“For me, it’s not really about the height,” he said. “It’s about the designation urban waterfront versus urban waterfront housing. I’m concerned about development possibilities under urban waterfront designation that don’t exist under urban waterfront housing.”
Keith Stahley, the leader of the city’s Community Planning and Development department, said city staffers would not study the possibility of urban waterfront housing on the isthmus unless the council directs it to.
In an interview, Strub said she supports keeping the housing designation because, “if the isthmus is developed, it should be developed with housing.”
Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869