Lacey city council rejected an ordinance removing their part from the land use review process during a meeting held yesterday, November 17.
Voting 4-3, this ordinance would have allowed councilmembers to communicate with their constituents who have filed a request with the land review board during the process and appeal period as the public often attempts to do, according to city council members.
The ordinance proposed to make decisions from the hearing examiner final but appealable through Thurston County Superior Court or the Shorelines Hearing Board. With the review process remaining unchanged, appeals will still be submitted to the city council.
City council members were evenly split, with Carolyn Cox, Michael Steadman, and Robin Vazquez voting yes and Lenny Greenstein, Ed Kunkel, and Malcolm Miller voting nay. Mayor Andy Ryder broke the deadlock by voting against the ordinance.
“What this action is doing, in my opinion, is passing the buck,” Ryder said.
“Our constituents believe that when it comes to a land use decision like this, that somehow the council can intervene,” Ryder commented. “We cannot.”
“It's gonna create a situation where it's going to put increased pressure on our staff. And they can't do anything to change it either,” the mayor explained.
Limited from conversation
Council members who voted yay explained that it was difficult not being allowed to talk with the public during the permitting process due to the Appearance of Fairness doctrine, which limits them from making one-sided contact with any of the parties involved in the process.
“The Appearance of Fairness makes everybody a violator just by living in a certain area of town,” Steadman said.
Steadman disagreed that staff would be burdened with the proposed changes as the public should have the responsibility to understand the process. He added that the council tries its best to explain the process, but it has been difficult as council members are not allowed to talk with them.
Greenstein, who voted against the ordinance, acknowledged these concerns. “They're emailing us, they're coming to our council meeting, and we can't speak to them,” he said. “[It] doesn't feel right as an elected [official] who is there to represent the people that elected us.”
“The only way we avoid this is to make sure before we get to this point, the zoning is how we want it and how we all would stand by it,” Greenstein continued.
Lacey’s planning and development services manager Grant Beck explained that under the current process, the office of land use hearing examiner conducts public hearings and decides on land use permit requests. The city council only reviews the record created by the hearing examiner.
The current process was established in 1995 when the Regulatory Reform Act was established.
Before this law, the hearing examiner had the authority to decide on certain land use permits but made recommendations for permits such as rezones, preliminary subdivisions, subdivision modifications, shoreline permits, planned residential developments, and conditional use permits, then submitted the recommendations to the city council which then held public hearings and decided on the requests.
Update: A previous version mistakenly put an Olympia committee photo in this story, and identified a group of councilmembers as voting in the negative instead of affirming the ordinance. The JOLT apologizes for this mistake and thanks Lacey councilmember Robin Vasquez for the correction.
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