Talk of the Town: A Residential Development Moratorium that Almost Was

December 13, 2015 | by Erin Sirianni

Explore +

In her first discussion of the residential development moratorium, council member Jane Meyer Brahm predicted, “If we thought the Town Center moratorium was going to cause a big uproar, this is going to cause a much bigger uproar.”

She was right.

In the three weeks to follow a midnight proposal of a limited residential development moratorium at the City Council’s November 16th meeting, the council was inundated with hundreds of emails and many phone calls.

“The level of communication the council has received in the last few weeks is more than we’ve seen in the last four years. This strikes a serious chord,” said council member Debbie Bertlin at the Council’s most recent meeting on December 7th.

meg-lippertA packed house at the Dec. 7th City Council meeting
Attendees of the December 7th City Council overflowed into the lobby, many who spoke during public appearances in regard to the second reading of a proposed residential development moratorium on lot coverage deviations and subdivisions. Some community members believe these types of development are changing the “charm and character” of Mercer Island’s neighborhoods.

Over 30 people spoke. The speakers were nearly evenly divided in their positions. About half spoke in favor of the moratorium.  Half spoke against it.

Many home owners approached the podium. Some shared their stories of negative impacts to their own properties by nearby developments. Others shared stories about financial hardships and building delays they would experience if a moratorium were to be put in place.

Industry representatives spoke on behalf of JayMarc Homes; the Master Builders Association; the King County Realtors Association; and Gallagher Construction – most criticized the suddenness, lack of transparency, and absence of community involvement surrounding the moratorium proposal.

A question of staff and resources
Changing the city’s residential development code does not happen over night, however.

The City’s Development Services Director Scott Greenberg also provided input to help the council make their decision regarding enacting the moratorium. He recommended that the city create a new position in the department to handle the higher-level work and long-range planning. He estimated the cost for the position to be $168,000, including salary and benefits.

He also said that the work would need to involve the City’s planning commission, which is busy with Town Center visioning work until May.

Further challenging the process of hiring new staff and preparing for a process similar to Town Center Visioning is the City Manager Noel Treat’s resignation on December 4th.

Mayor Bruce Bassett acknowledged these challenges in his comments against enacting a moratorium:

“By putting this out there at the same the staff says they don’t have the ability to work on this, it’s disrespectful of staff and their workload. And that becomes particularly true as we lose our city manager,” he said. “If we’re losing people, we need to be thinking about why we’re losing people and make sure this isn’t the hard place to work where people are overtaxed.”

He also noted the challenge of prioritizing funds for staffing amongst the City’s other departments.

“We are going to face tough decisions,” he said. “Are we paying for counselors or are we paying for a new DSG role?”

Moratorium-1The Council’s decision
Ultimately, the council voted 5-2 not to implement the moratorium. Dan Grausz and Mike Cero voted in support of the moratorium. Debbie Bertlin, Bruce Bassett, Benson Wong, Jane Meyer Brahm, and newly sworn-in Jeff Sanderson voted against it.

Dan Grausz, who initially proposed the moratorium and who is neighbor to a property that recently sold to a developer, was apologetic for the timing of his proposal, yet still strongly advocated in support of it.

“This was a blunt way of bringing this forward, but it was a call to this council to address the most serious issues on our island,” he said. “Every time you wait, some other neighborhood is going to be impacted.”

Bertlin said that after attending a meeting held by JayMarc Homes with its neighbors and listening to the concerns of community that subdivisions are not the primary issue, and stronger concerns are focused on lot coverage deviations, tree removal, setbacks, and density.

“I think we should go forward with better problem definition with the public, and I would suggest that there be a council subcommittee with members of the community members as well, to make sure that we are adequately understanding the source of the issues,” she said.

While the council members appeared to be on the same page in understanding the community’s pains about residential development – they differed on how to address them.

“I think every council member agrees that there is a problem. But we disagree about the process,” Wong said.

Wong’s comments followed Cero’s statement: “The moratorium is the process. By passing a moratorium, it gives us the focus to do what’s right. If we don’t do a moratorium, it will be the same old story.”

Yet now a residential moratorium may no longer be in the near future for Mercer Island.

“We are very interested in solving this problem, but not by way of a moratorium that gets everyone’s stress levels high and generates the kind of response that we saw this evening,” Bassett said.

What’s next?
The council followed its vote against the moratorium with a 4-3 vote to discuss issues surrounding residential development at its annual Planning Session to be held January 22-24th.  It also decided not to fund the additional Development Services position at this time.

What are your takeaways from the discussions around the residential development moratorium?  Do you agree with the council’s decision?  Or disagree?  Feel free to share in the comments.