After what he described as days, weeks, months of preparation, Dennis Saxman had his hour in King County Superior Court on July 7. Less than two weeks later, the judge's ruling arrived in the mail regarding his appeal under the Land Use Petition Act — three pages drafted by the opposing attorney and signed by the judge to the effect of: case dismissed.
It's not uncommon for citizens to complain about a development, but it's very rare for someone to take a case all the way to Superior Court. What's the expression, you can't fight City Hall?
But fight City Hall he does. Every Seattle City Council member knows Saxman. He declares himself "a thorn in their side," particularly in matters that come before the Planning, Land Use, and Neighborhood Committee (PLUNC). He always steps up during the public comment period. Saxman's critics are more vocal than his supporters, accusing him of causing urban blight rather than preventing bad design, acting as a lone wolf rather than a community activist. His lack of expertise in design comes under fire. Could a renter really be so invested in the neighborhood?
According to Saxman, this particular crusade began in March 2007, when he started attending meetings of the Pine Street, Olive Way, Harvard Avenue Triangle (POWHAT) neighborhood. He became fascinated by DPD process unfolding over a proposed Murray Franklyn development of luxury condos at 514 E. Pine St., at Belmont Avenue, on Capitol Hill. Saxman didn't think the developer was being very open and made it his mission to learn all he could about urban planning. Nine months later, before a city hearing examiner, he argued for overturning DPD's approval of the project. He lost but filed an appeal in King County Superior Court. Six months later, he had 30 minutes to present his case, contending that the hearing examiner should not have upheld DPD's decision. On July 18, Judge Julie Spector issued her ruling, that the "petitioner had failed to meet his burden to establish that the Examiner violated the standards of the Land Use Petition Act."
On the surface, Saxman appears to be fighting one development. But his scope is much broader. He believes that design guidelines established and adopted for 16 urban neighborhoods in Seattle are not being enforced. In addition, he thinks the current DPD process, which involves volunteer design review boards and interaction with developers and architects, is dysfunctional. Saxman's stated goal is to increase awareness about disregard for design guidelines, which he hopes will lead to neighborhoods to join forces for reform.
Saxman's apartment is located in an area that should be subject to the Pike/Pine Neighborhood Plan and Urban Village Design Guidelines. Per Seattle code, new commercial and multi-family projects exceeding a certain size and in certain zones must go through design review on their path to a master use permit. Reporting to the DPD are seven design review boards, each comprised of five citizen volunteers within specific categories — design professional, developer, commercial representative (those three are at-large seats), and a local resident and a business representative. The citizens serve a two-year terms and are charged with reviewing projects within the seven geographic areas. If four out of the five board members vote in favor of approving a project, it is considered a "supermajority" and must be upheld by the DPD director. A 2006 city auditor's report provides an excellent overview and recommendations for improvement of the process.
Saxman's argument is that guidelines established for design review, in laboriously created Neighborhood Plans and in Seattle's Comprehensive Plan, were incorporated into Municipal Code so as to be legally enforceable. The Pike and Belmont project was approved last November. Saxman began the appeal process, which placed his case before Ann Watanabe of the city's Hearing Examiner office, on Jan. 2. Watanabe upheld the DPD's decision to approve the project, issuing her findings and decision on Jan. 16. Saxman filed an appeal in King County Superior Court, claiming that the hearing examiner did not hold a fair hearing. He cited a demeaning attitude (laughter), said she did not consistently consider evidence, and did not properly weigh the evidence Saxman presented to support "that the land use decision is an erroneous interpretation."
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