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    You can fight City Hall

    Of course, you might not win. Dennis Saxman, a self-described thorn in the side of Seattle officials, has just lost one battle involving the design review process — and he's launched another.
    Dennis Saxman. (Peggy Sturdivant)

    Dennis Saxman. (Peggy Sturdivant) None

    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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    Posted Mon, Jul 28, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

    Feminized 'The Seattle Way': Time for men to take back the decision making process and issue meaty, well reasoned opinions and rulings. Hearing examiners and judges should show a little legal expertise and not rely on one side's boilerplate rhetoric.


    Posted Mon, Jul 28, 1:52 p.m. Inappropriate

    RE: Feminized 'The Seattle Way': I do agree that hearing examiners and judges — both male and female — should issue "well-reasoned opinions and rulings" that aren't boilerplate, but perhaps we're asking too much of them, given what we allow our legislators to do.

    Posted Wed, Jul 30, 11:51 a.m. Inappropriate

    Fighting City Hall???: It would take a while to educate myself on this Judge's actions, but as a former Seattle resident I'm certainly sympathetic. I hope there are many current educated residents who are looking into the matter.

    I bought my first house in Tacoma over four years ago and it is definitely interesting to look at the two cities comparatively. Citizen relationships here are rife with dysfunction, the most famous case being Will Baker.

    I think there's a pattern here - City Government, directed by the authority of the Court, giving themseves the mantle of being the 'people'. That is definitely NOT what the US Constitution envisions, though it is certainly a simpler definition.

    The noun 'people' is like the pronoun 'you' - it can be either singular or plural. And I do think this is an important legal point. As far as I'm concerned City, and County Governments are, practically the most retail level of the US system - it is their responsibility to address rationally the concerns of rational individual who expresses their concern in an educated manner.

    That is the law.

    I can't speak to the specifics of this case, but, IMO, they aren't practicing law in King County Courts but rather an complex web of rationalizations that only discount accountability for those under their 'protection'.

    This wasn't intentional, it just happened. As they say, absolute power corrupts absolutely - and it doesn't matter whether it's a monopoly, a government, or violent abuse with a decided physical advantage - it's all pretty much the same thing.

    I think there are two reasons why this has happened. If King County Lawyers don't hold an absolute majority in the Washington State Bar, they are close. Effectively this places control of the profession under the Judges of King County, to whom these 'officers of the court' report.

    Secondly, the profession has gotten into the hate business - though civil rights was needed and has had some benefits they profession has never paid for their involvement in these historical crimes. What they've done instead is used victims of these crimes to 'rationalize' whatever they want to do, only selecting those civil rights cases that benefit the profession.

    As the US Constition, and myself, say, Civil Rights belong to everyone, and it is the primary responsibility of both City and County Governments to make sure those individual rights are represented.

    Current practice in King County is a hate crime for profit, extortion. Witness the apparently politically correct firm Foster Pepper Sheffelman. Though now running Sound Transit their historical foundation has been WAMU - now under pressure for mortgage problems. Curiously their first public 'client', Norm Rice, was also disgraced for his involvement in Federal Home Financing.

    One question for you my friends, is how many bank loans are going to be financed out of the US Deficit for the lawyers to buy your foreclosed home? Not sure the specifics of that one, but it merits investigation. Call it probably cause if you will.

    Consider also the case of Preston Gates and Ellis, 40 years ago truly a beacon of light in this area. Now, disbanded apparently because of the ramifications of the Abramoff corruption case.

    Call it a corruption of the absolute authority of local due process, if you will.

    Personally, I'll call the constitutional violations the equivalent of hate motivated rape. Regardless of that, legal practitioners are subject to the same consequences of their actions they dole out to others, no?

    -Douglas Tooley
    My Blog

    Posted Wed, Jul 30, 1:19 p.m. Inappropriate

    PRETEND DESIGN REVIEW: Neighborhood Design Review sounds like a good thing. Democracy in action. It probably works sometimes but neighborhood folks really can't take responsibility for a design; that would simply be unworkable: "..we'll design the building, you pay for it."

    The City (DPD) pretends to have Design Review and most neighbors pretend to participate in design. Admirable though he may be Mr. Saxman probably takes the Neighborhood Design Review promises too literally.

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