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You can fight City Hall

Dennis Saxman.

Dennis Saxman. (Peggy Sturdivant)

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.”

Six months later, Saxman hauled his 1,000 pages of material to Judge Julie Spector’s courtroom and sat alone at one end of a long table. He’s a tall, gaunt man, a former paralegal and an inactive member of the California Bar who has been on medical disability since 2002. Joan Noth from the City Attorney’s office arrived and greeted Saxman. The respondent’s attorneys, Peter Buck and Randall Olson from Buck Law Group, arrived with assistants carrying their supporting documents.

Saxman had 30 minutes to make his case to the court. His argument: Specific guidelines developed by neighborhoods and incorporated into Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, neighborhood plans, and Municipal Land Use Code should be considered legally binding but are, instead, ignored and/or undermined by the city’s own Department of Planning and Development. His research had convinced him that once a project is approved by the Design Review Board, it is virtually guaranteed to be approved by DPD; is often exempted from further study of potential State Environmental Protection Act significance; and sets the stage for departures from Land Use Code that favor developers and ignore neighborhood-specific guidelines. He had 170 photos and volumes of what he considered to be evidence.

Whereas Saxman sought to prove the relevance of design guidelines in maintaining distinctive architectural features on behalf of the 16 plans with neighborhood-specific guidelines, respondent Peter Buck focused on the particular property delayed by this appeal, at 514 E. Pine Street. He referred to the design guidelines as regulatory schemes instead of binding code, arguing that guidelines by definition allow for flexibility. Likewise, the assistant city attorney’s only rebuttal to Saxman’s petition was that design review is a process, that citizen design review boards allow for community input, and that the developer worked hard to meet requests on the part of the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Near the end of his long-awaited time in front of the judge, Saxman looked down at four lengthy briefs on the table and an accompanying box of documentation. “I’m relying on what I’ve written,” he said rather sadly, “which I think is more articulate.” Judge Spector closed by promising to issue her decision within the next few weeks and said she would carefully review the substance of the hearing examiner’s transcript to determine whether errors were made. Saxman knew she probably wouldn’t find for him on the unfairness of the hearing examiner but thought there was a real chance she’d agree there were inconsistencies in the application of Design Review Guidelines.

After the judge left the courtroom that day, Saxman turned around and realized how many supporters had slipped onto the benches, heeding weekend e-mails sent to community groups. Saxman acknowledged them emotionally, “I’m heartened to see so many members of the community,” he said. “This battle will continue, whether I win or lose.”

Twelve days after the hearing, Saxman received the judge’s ruling in the mail. It was essentially a copy of what opposing attorneys had e-mailed him a few days earlier, a petition to dismiss, which the judge adopted and signed. No details whatsoever, no answers to the questions that Saxman had posed: Are design guidelines a suggestion or are they criteria? Can they be enforced? Is the design review process following the directives of 16 specific neighborhoods within the 34 neighborhood plans? The stated purpose of the Pike/Pine plan is “to sustain the character of the Pike/Pine neighborhood by development of Design Guidelines and Design Review process to preserve ‘character’ buildings, and the implementation of urban design improvements that enhance the pedestrian environment.”

In simplest terms, the ruling means the project at 514 E. Pine Street can proceed. Saxman was very disappointed by Spector’s decision, but he is undeterred from his campaign to reform the process. New battle lines have been drawn, and the street address is 1605 Bellevue Ave. The planned six-story apartment building (formerly condominiums) has already been through design review and approved by DPD. Saxman’s appeal of the decision is scheduled with Head Hearing Examiner Sue Tanner on Sept. 10. Saxman feels he’s learned a great deal from the last proceedings and has been digging ever deeper for municipal information that bolsters his argument. “These guidelines were meant to be followed,” he says, and he’s determined to prove it.

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