Hyperlocal community councils pack a lot of power

As Puget Sound becomes denser, some community groups have unusual authority to veto land-use decisions within their neighborhoods, but won't for long.

Lightrail downtown Bellevue station

As light rail arrives in Bellevue -- pictured here is the new downtown station -- the city council approved a decrease in the minimum number of parking stalls required for multiple-family and affordable housing near frequent transit routes. (Lizz Giordano for Crosscut)

When the Kirkland City Council approved a new “missing middle housing” bill to make it easier to build duplexes, triplexes and cottages in areas dominated by single-family homes, one neighborhood was able to carve out an exemption to the new policy.

The Houghton Community Council fended off the change, aimed at tackling housing affordability, by blocking the potential for added density from the council’s neighborhood. The powerful but little-known community council is one of two left in the state with the unusual authority to veto land-use decisions from within its borders.

The other, the East Bellevue Community Council, faced criticism when it refused to decrease the minimum amount of parking required for multiple-family and affordable housing projects near frequent transit routes, even after a new state law also aimed at reducing the cost of new housing units mandated the change.

Community councils aren’t the only groups being criticized for becoming gatekeepers to neighborhoods. Seattle Design Review boards, charged with evaluating the design of new large multifamily projects, can tie up projects for months.

While some complain of their outsized influence, supporters of these community councils and design review boards say they provide a check and balance for neighborhoods by ensuring public input on large projects or zoning changes.

As two of Washington's fastest-growing cities — Bellevue and Kirkland — reckon with housing affordability, elected officials from those areas urged state legislators to wrestle away hyperlocal control from community councils. Which the lawmakers did earlier this year, passing a bill that sunsets the bodies this summer. And density advocates, environmental groups and developers — both private and nonprofit —  have come together to take aim at Seattle’s design review board process, with the goal of making building new multifamily housing more predictable and quicker.

The East Bellevue Community Council vetoed a new city policy decreasing the minimum number of parking stalls required for multiple-family and affordable housing near frequent transit routes, exempting the area from the change. The Bellevue City Council passed the new minimums as transit options expand in the region including the East Link light rail extension pictured here as the yet to be finished tracks enter the future Wilburton Station located just east of I-5 and downtown. (Lizz Giordano for Crosscut)

Easing annexation

Set up as a way to ease the transition after an unincorporated neighborhood joins a city, a community council allows annexed areas to retain hyperlocal authority over zoning decisions within its own borders. They are given the unique power by the state to approve or disapprove ordinances or resolutions passed by a city council that apply to land, buildings or structures.

A small portion of residents from Kirkland and Bellevue belong to one of these community councils, and even fewer know these two groups even exist. Community council elections often fail to attract a challenger. In the last election, only two of the 12 seats between both Bellevue and Kirkland’s councils drew an opponent.

State Rep. Davina Duerr, D-Bothell, hadn’t heard about these councils until she was asked to sponsor a bill to sunset the councils in the Local Government Committee she vice-chairs. Her district contains part of north Kirkland.

“It was almost like they were their own fiefdoms,” said Duerr in an interview over Zoom. “We all have to take on a certain amount of growth, and then if you have to exempt certain areas of the cities, it puts higher pressure on other areas.”

Plus, every vote should count the same, Duerr added.

“If you are living in one of those [areas represented by] councils, your vote is not the same as someone living outside one of those councils,” she said.

Kirkland Mayor Penny Sweet said the power of the community council could influence city councils as they craft ordinances and resolutions.

“The fact of the potential veto outcome had a dampening effect I suspect on councils in the past,” Sweet said.

Sweet was part of Kirkland’s recent push to extinguish the councils, which began a decade ago when her husband, state Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, first introduced a bill repealing their power.

Community councils can also sunset themselves. Every four years residents must vote to retain the council. The last to do this was the Sammamish Community Council in 2001. 

Steve Kasner, a long-serving member of the East Bellevue Community Council, said Springer's bill failed the first time but succeeded the second because he has fewer friends in the state Legislature today.

“The community council was a place the city had to talk with us, and if we didn’t like their answers, we said no,” said Kasner. “We didn’t get two bites of the apple, as people claim, we just got the last bite. Do whatever you want, and if we like it, we will accept it. If we don’t, we will say, no, thank you.”

Sometimes these vetoes led to lawsuits. In 2015, the East Belleuvue Community Council entwined the city in a lawsuit brought by Puget Sound Energy after the community council vetoed a new powerline “connector” through its borders. The community council lost its bid, racking up a tab for the city, which, according to state law, is responsible for supplying staff for the community council and often also pays court fees.

Kasner and other community council members say the authority to form a community council was part of the annexation agreement and should be respected.

“Because of our history, we are not like other neighborhoods. Agreements were made that gave us certain legal rights and responsibilities,” said Betsy Pringle, a member of the Houghton Community Council for two decades.

Betsi Hummer, a member of the East Bellevue council, saw keeping the public informed as one of her roles on the council.

“The EBBC serves as a real ... check and balance so to speak, so that neighbors are heard,” Hummer added.

An equity study commissioned by Kirkland found the community council’s authority over certain land use gave Houghton veto rights over affordable housing, increased residential and commercial density, and school expansion, “creating a barrier to the equitable distribution of city programs, services and resources, both inside and outside of their borders of jurisdiction.”

The Houghton neighborhood basically gets two votes, said Kirkland City Councilmember Kelli Curtis, who also served on the Houghton Community Council for three years.

The combination of the pandemic — and the subsequent social reckoning — and moving to a citywide seat shifted Curtis’ opinion on community councils.

“The last two years have been pretty significant for us as a culture and society, as we are all looking at intentional and unintentional barriers to equality and inclusion,” said Curtis. “It became clear that Houghton prevented housing and changes in their neighborhood.”

A new seven-story mixed-use development will replace a surface parking lot and grocery store at the corner of a busy intersection in upper Queen Anne. (Lizz Giordano for Crosscut)

Gatekeepers or defenders?

The Seattle Design Review Boards have come under similar scrutiny. Some in the housing world blame them for stopping or slowing the construction of new homes rather than encouraging good design, as the boards were intended to do.

For large projects, generally those over 35,000 square feet, developers and architects must go before one of the eight design review boards scattered throughout the city that are made up of volunteers, who often have design or architectural experience. Smaller multifamily developments go through what’s called administrative design review, an internal process completed by city staff.

Using a list of guidelines, the Seattle Design Review Boards are charged with evaluating the design of new projects to ensure they fit into the neighborhood and the surrounding urban landscape — both aesthetically and functionally. The boards then give recommendations to the city Permitting Department through approvals, with or without caveats, or instructions to return to the board to address concerns.

These boards have some control over how fast projects move through the permitting stage, critics said, influencing what gets built.

For three years, Mark Ostrow dutifully followed one project’s saga through the design review process, sharing its progress over social media. His droll commentary is credited by some for bringing the obscure process to light as he documented in tweets a series of meetings for the project, which replaces an existing Safeway and parking lot with a new store and more than 300 housing units to upper Queen Anne.

“I really wanted to get a broader cross-section of the neighborhood involved so I was tweeting and trying to make it as entertaining as I could,” Ostrow said. “It didn’t take a lot of work after a while because it became kinda a farce, and it was just a matter of describing events that were happening in front of me.”

His posts contained memes, fiery photo montages and quotes from commenters that ranged from worries over parking and traffic to declaring the project lacks soul. At one point the color of the brick held up the project in design review for several months, he said. The developer responded with an extensive brick and siding study for the proposed seven-story building at the next design review meeting.

Ostrow, a certified public accountant by day, is the board treasurer of the advocacy group Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and heads the local chapter in Queen Anne. Every design review Twitter thread, Ostrow said, has drawn comments of surprise on the social media site that these boards even existed.

“People constantly questioned the process; If this is legal development, why aren’t they just allowed to build it?” he said.

Several developers and three years later, the development finally completed its design review last year and the old Safeway is set to close this summer for demolition. All in all, it will have taken more than seven years for the project to be completed, Ostrow said. That extended timeline has left him a little jaded.

“On one hand you can walk outside and see people without homes, people who don’t have a place to live, people [who] are being priced out of the city, people [who] are being priced out of their homes, and, on the other hand there are people really nitpicking about a particular shade of brick we are going to use on this housing development,” he said. “There's this emergency on one side and then there’s this extreme lack of urgency, as projects made their way through this process.”

The Safeway project has since become a poster child for a diverse coalition of environmentalists, density advocates, labor groups and developers — private and nonprofit — of what’s wrong with design review boards.

A report commissioned by one of the Seattle for Everyone coalition partners found that projects were seeing longer timelines through design review. And the process, which allows for personal opinions to influence buildings, lacks a diverse set of members. The report highlights board complaints that include projects “mimicking historic architecture rather than complementing it” and “the color scheme is less timeless than the rest.”

“Because there are so many guidelines, it’s easy to conform what you are asking for to one of those guidelines,” said Brady Nordstrom, a spokesperson for Seattle for Everyone.

The criticism leveled against design review for the Safeway project was fair, said Marty Kaplan, a former member of the Queen Anne Community Council, an active neighborhood group that doesn’t have the same veto power of the other community councils. But in general the design review process has worked quite well for the area, he added.

Kaplan, who chaired the neighborhood group land-use committee at the time the Safeway project went through the design review, continues to support keeping the design review board in place because it's a way for public input to shape projects.

“Shouldn't neighbors have an avenue to developers?” asked Kaplan.

Design review acts as a check and balance for the neighborhood, said Denny Bird, who followed Kaplan as land-use chair on the Queen Anne Community Council.

“Originally it was just a big ugly square box, Safeway was not as amenable to working with the community as we would have liked,” Bird said.

He said the hold-up in design review wasn’t over brick color but rather over the size and form of the project. The process and time are worth ensuring quality buildings that reflect the current neighborhood, Bird added.

“It’s not worth giving up something, whether it takes a year longer, and having it be a junky building — maybe that's not the right terminology — or something that’s not sustainable, because of one year,” Bird said. “There’s no reason we can’t have nice looking buildings and keep our neighborhoods in the flavors we want.”

Bellevue downtown light rail station sits below the city hall adjacent not far from the bus terminal. (Lizz Giordano for Crosscut)

Developer Ryan S., who didn’t want his full name used, has managed to avoid Seattle’s design review process for the Past two decades by building under the threshold or in single-family areas so as to not trigger the scrutiny.

It’s not worth the time or money to go through the process, he said.

“I don’t have a year and half to sit on it, and another $15,000 to throw at the architect and get nothing for it,” he added. “It’s such a hassle and you are made to feel like a terrible person.”

Changes could be coming to the design review process, as the city acts on a budget item to study the process.

“We’ve done this from time to time, including some recent adjustments made in response to the pandemic to support virtual public meetings and streamlining for affordable housing proposals,” said Shelley Bolser, manager of the design review program.

This follows the city’s move to exempt large affordable housing projects from this process a few years ago. They go through an internal staff review rather than face a public board.

“In part I think that's an acknowledgment on how expensive design review actually is to proceed through,” said Matt Hutchins, an architect and member of Seattle for Everyone. “It is an indictment of the process. And at the same time a lot of market-rate housing is paying the price.”

Seattle for Everyone’s recommendations include upping the threshold for projects that go through the full design review process, reducing the number of design guidelines and limiting the number of times a project must come before a design review board. Some have called for eliminating the process altogether.

Hutchins, who sat on the southwest review board for three years, sees a benefit to spending time on design review for large projects that will really affect the urban environment. But the process also has an impact on the way our city looks, he cautioned.

“People are so gun-shy about doing anything that’s innovative because they are going to get slapped by public comment, planner, designer review board,” Hutchins said. “People complain all the apartments look the same. Well, that’s because they are all going through this design review process that enforces some kind of standards. That’s not a great outcome.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Lizz Giordano

Lizz Giordano

Lizz Giordano is Cascade PBS's investigative reporter, focused on following working conditions, government oversight procedures and labor organizing efforts across Washington state. She can be followed on Twitter @lizzgior or reached on email at lizz.giordano@cascadepbs.org.