Hearing on EIS appeal of HALA upzones set for April but CM Johnson moves ahead anyway with Council review; has he crossed a legal red line?

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Update of appeal by 27 neighborhood and housing groups; they’re seeking donations to help cover the cost of their appeal while CM Johnson pretends there is no appeal (and no widespread opposition to the city’s massive upzoning plan)

The City’s Hearing Examiner has scheduled the appeal of the planned city-wide HALA upzones for April in a hearing expected to take several days if not longer.  Twenty seven neighborhood and housing groups filed the appeal late last year charging the city had failed to adequately assess the adverse impacts of HALA upzones or offer adequate mitigation for damage to the livability and affordability of their communities as is required under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).

Given the Hearings Examiner’s full schedule of appeals, the number of groups involved in the appeal, and its expected length, dates could not be found until at least April.  And there is a chance it could be postponed even to a later date. The city has said it may need extra time to prepare it’s defense and produce an extensive amount of documents and analysis requested ‘in discovery’ by those filing the appeal.  

It’s normal in an appeal like this that the city would be asked and required to produce all materials relevant to its actions, but this is not a normal site-specific or even neighborhood-specific upzone.  It’s a sweeping set of upzones affecting every corner of the city with documents and analysis going back years for each affected community. 

The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) says that “decision-makers” shall have a completed environmental document placed before them “when considering the alternatives or their preferred action”.   Translated that means Councilmember Johnson as chair of the Council’s Land Use Committee cannot commit his committee to a course of action, in this case city-wide upzoning, until after a hearings examiner decision on the appeal.  Only then will the environmental process be completed and only then will Johnson receive a full record of environmental impacts and alternative courses of action for his committee to consider. 

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CM Rob Johnson: is he defying SEPA?

But Johnson appears to be defying this law and has already set up a rigorous schedule of open houses, and forums he and his Council committee have sponsored to take comment on the city’s “preferred alternative”.  The first of those forums will be held January 30th in northeast Seattle.  The full schedule showing when they’ll be coming to your neighborhood can be found here.   

And Councilmember Johnson also has scheduled a series of official “Council public hearings”, the first of these on February 12th at Eckstein Middle School to take public comment on his “preferred option”.  Presumably these are hearings that will be attended by the rest of his committee members if not the full Council also invited to attend.

For over two years, a platoon of pro-upzone city staff have zealously promoted the HALA plan, held a series of highly orchestrated and controlled public forums while arrogantly pretending that residents in affected neighborhoods were not uniformly opposed to the city’s plans.  CM Johnson now has chosen to continue this charade ignoring an unprecedented joint appeal from a coalition of grassroots groups representing every corner of the city.  And in this instance, he also appears to be ignoring the law. 

Obviously, the hearings, forums, and discussions Johnson has scheduled at the Council level presuppose there already is a preferred alternative and that all review processes are exhausted which clearly is not the case.  It’s months before a ruling by the Hearing Examiner and long before Johnson or the rest of his Land Use Committee will formally receive a finalized environmental document with a full and complete assessment of adverse impacts, mitigation, or alternatives.  

According to SEPA, Johnson must receive and have a completed environmental assessment presented to his committee as early as possible in the decision-making process so it can serve practically to inform consideration of their action and make a real contribution to decision making and “so that it will not be used to rationalize or justify decisions already made”.  (RCW 43.21C.020, 43.21C.030(1), 43.21C.060, 43.21C.075, and 43.21C.080.)

By moving forward now, even holding Council sponsored public hearings, and making it very clear he has a preferred option – to upzone the hell out of our neighborhoods – before the SEPA process is complete, Johnson may already have crossed a legal line.  If he hasn’t yet, he is poised to do so very soon.  And given his current and very aggressive schedule of review, Johnson apparently could care less.  

Groups from across the city filing the appeal are asking you for your support and contributions.  

In their words, “challenging the City’s deeply flawed plan requires good lawyers and sharp land-use experts… we can’t do it without you!”.  They asking you to “please consider a donation today” by Going online to Seattle Fair Growth (https://www.seattlefairgrowth.org/) and clicking on the “Donate To The Coalition Appeal” button.  

Their goal is simple.  Again in their words, they want to “require the City to grow but the right way” putting first measures in place ensuring growth is managed and that developers pay their fair share.  That starts first with a responsible and objective assessment of impacts on both the affordability and livability of our neighborhoods, and an outline of reasonable and true mitigation put before the decision-makers before they act.  None of this, they say, is achieved now in the City’s final environmental impact statement (FEIS).  For more information on the appeal, go to Seattle Fair Growth’s website.  

About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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