As many of my constituents probably know, I have been working for over 3 years on legislation to make it easier for property owners to create accessory dwelling units (backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments). On October 18, 2018, the Queen Anne Community Council, represented by Marty Kaplan, appealed the adequacy of the Final Environmental Impact Statement with the City of Seattle Hearing Examiner. The timing for City Council consideration of proposed legislation is uncertain while the appeal is ongoing.
On Monday I met with Marty Kaplan to discuss our proposed Backyard Cottage legislation. I am always interested in meeting with constituents – even constituents who I have disagreements with. I believe it is critically important to all policy makers to have a good understanding of all perspectives on an issue before we make policy decisions, and this issue is no different.
I want to share with the public both what transpired in that friendly meeting as well as facts on how this process will move forward.
Let me start by explaining what Marty’s challenge to the EIS means and, in that context, what a settlement negotiation would entail. This appeal process is not where decisions are made about forthcoming legislation, but where the Examiner evaluates the adequacy of our analysis about the impacts of a range of policy alternatives. Marty and his organization appealed, and a hearing has been set for the week of March 25th, with a decision expected soon after from the Hearing Examiner’s office. That decision will articulate if more analysis is needed for the EIS, or if the EIS is adequate such that the Council can move forward with legislation. Assuming a positive outcome from the Examiner appeal, my plan would be to introduce legislation based on the Preferred Alternative defined in the Final EIS as a starting point for our legislative process.
Following a favorable resolution of the Examiner’s appeal process, we will begin the legislative process. We will have multiple committee meetings and a public hearing over the course of a few months to discuss the legislation. Once we start debating at City Council, we will begin what is in effect a public negotiation with ALL members of our communities who are interested in this legislation. We will get public comments at meetings, we will get emails and phone calls, and likely most Councilmembers will take private meetings with different groups advocating for different approaches to the policy. In addition to our committee process, I plan to hold topical discussions leading up to legislation being introduced, where my colleagues and I can get feedback on some of the more debated aspects of the Preferred Alternative, such as the floor area ratio (FAR) requirements, and my ideas around owner occupancy requirements. My goal with this and any legislation is to make the process public, transparent, and accessible to everyone interested in having their voice heard, regardless of whether they can afford attorneys.
As far as negotiations for an appeal to the adequacy of our environmental review, the leverage Marty has in a negotiation is that he could drop the appeal, at which point we would be able to proceed to pass legislation on a faster timeline. Why would Marty choose to drop his appeal? Presumably only if he got something he wanted, and what he wants is different legislation than what is proposed in the Preferred Alternative of the EIS.
I explained to Marty that while the legislation I plan to introduce was likely to reflect the Preferred Alternative in the EIS, I am open to changes to that legislation as we work through the legislative process. Furthermore, even if I disagree with certain changes to the legislation, a majority of the Council, not me alone, make the decisions about what changes are acceptable. I also assured him that whatever likely passes the full Council at the end of the process will almost certainly be different than what I introduce, as I am not aware of any complex piece of land use legislation that doesn’t go through some changes in the legislative process.
If Marty was asking me to cut a special, secret deal with him so that he would drop the lawsuit, I made it clear to him that I am completely opposed to that type of back room dealing. But I also informed him that he would have plenty of opportunities to present his concerns about my proposed legislation in public forums and that I would remain open to understanding why people have different opinions and consider different approaches we could explore to pursue my objectives of creating more housing opportunities.
In our conversation, I asked Marty what kind of changes he would like to see in the legislation, especially to address his complaint that it is a “one-size fits all” bill. He proposed having different rules depending on lot size or street width. I informed him that the underlying legislation already contemplates different heights allowed for backyard cottages based on lot size, but that I would be interested in hearing a different proposal if he had a different framework on lot size or street width to bring forward. He didn’t have anything specific to share on Monday, but I encouraged him to develop a plan and bring his ideas to me, other Councilmembers, and committee discussions as they get underway in the new year.
Despite what Marty claims in his email blasts, I explained the many doors that remain open throughout the upcoming process to influence the outcome of the legislation.
I want to close with a quick note on the tenor of city politics that Marty is playing on in all of his communications. I have known Marty for a decade, and I appreciated meeting with him on Monday. We clearly disagree on some policy issues but were still able to carry out a thoughtful and intelligent discussion. It felt like an example of what is good about Seattle politics. But I have since learned that Marty has publicly represented our friendly conversation as a divisive fight. Instead of communicating where we have common ground and where we differ, explaining the opportunities to influence the process and sharing my willingness to remain open to alternative approaches during the legislative process, Marty choose instead to double down on a mean-spirited and polarizing approach, representing the worst of our current tone in politics. As a community, we must decide if we are going to let divisiveness prevail and be the new way we govern, or re-embrace what I have known my entire life in Seattle: a collaborative approach to policy making.
The legislative process exists for a reason, and just because people seem to be leaning one way at the moment, including me, as we learn more from community members during the legislative process, we often change direction. I encourage Marty Kaplan, and anyone else, to bring the best arguments forward in that public and transparent forum.