Pierce County needs new transparency policies

Digital illustration of Washington State“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” – Open Public Meetings Act Legislative Declaration

On government transparency, Washington has a lot to be proud of. Though the Legislature exempts itself, our open meeting and public record laws for local government are among the most robust in the country. Unfortunately, as is often the case with government, the rules haven’t kept pace with changing technology.

You’d think that a tech savvy state like Washington would be quicker to adapt.

While the rules have been successfully interpreted to cover email, which also creates a handy searchable database for records requests, these days we can easily communicate through SMS or text messages and a variety of social media platforms on handheld devices.

This issue recently came up in a court case involving Pierce County. Sean Robinson at The News Tribune frames the debate:

Does the public have a right to see Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist’s private phone records if they include work-related information?

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Lindquist acknowledges he uses his private phone for work purposes. No county policy or state law prevents him from doing so. County spokesman Hunter George said the county is developing a policy regarding personal devices, but it’s still in the early stages.

I don’t have all the details of the case and trust the courts will handle it appropriately. Two Superior Court rulings have gone in favor of the County. What got my attention was the apparent lack of policy for such communications.

Broadly speaking, government business should be conducted using government property so that records it creates are archived for inspection upon demand by the public. However, it appears that policy has not kept up with the reality of how we now live and work.

One reason this issue is best settled by legislative bodies rather than the courts is that there are times that public officials may need to communicate where government property cannot, and should not be used. For example, political activities are strictly prohibited from use of government resources, be they copy machines, email, or cell phones.

Obviously these discussions can get into policy, so the questions is, where do we draw the line? Courts can make interpretations of the law, but when the law is silent, that’s a challenge.

Public records law gets particular tricky in social media where the lines can be blurred to an even greater degree. I’ve always been active on Twitter, Facebook, and my blog about City business, but they are my own property. While state law isn’t clear, I’ve followed guidance from the Attorney General’s office and kept them all open for the public to see and archived in case of a records request. When emails about City business came to my personal email, I forwarded them to my City email in order to create a record.

On the other hand, I’ve mixed my personal social media for both City and campaign business. Some might consider that to be inappropriate. As a result, the City of Seattle has created official accounts for their electeds that are separate from their personal or campaign accounts. The problem as I see it is that this can be less useful for the public and discourages the kind of public engagement I think the law was intended for. I’m not sure who’s right, but lacking clear policy, you’ll get ad hoc approaches to compliance which serves no one very well.

In the case mentioned above, there are some additional concerns related to privacy of victims, legal strategy, and other protected information that cannot be subject to public records. I’m confident that any breach of rules, if there was any, was accidental and largely the result of a lack of clear guidance. But the public must be able to trust that’s the case absolutely.

Unfortunately, there are a large number of examples of government officials using private means of communication to get around public disclosure. Inevitably, it’s when they’re discussing something embarrassing, which is to say something they probably shouldn’t be doing. Former Alaska Governor Palin and more egregiously, Wisconsin Governor Walker are two well known cases.

I don’t have much faith in the Legislature tackling this issue in the near future, so I think it’s time for the County, and local government in general, to take the next step. So does the TNT Editorial Board. Gray areas in the law are an invitation to evade the law.

But we shouldn’t stop with reactive policy. With the cloud making storage increasingly cheap, we should make as much information as is possible, accessible to the public in easily searchable databases. We should release data gathered by the government in common formats so that researchers and programmers can work with it for consumption in meaningful ways. Who knows what valuable resource we could get in return?

Hopefully, the County Council won’t wait long to adopt new open government policies. If they haven’t by the end of the year and I’m successful in the upcoming election, I’ll make it a priority to get it done.

Posted in Governance, Open Government, Pierce County | Tagged , , , , , | Comments

You’re Welcome Spokane!

I guess if the Senate Majority Coalition is going to use Tacoma Narrows Bridge toll money to pay for other transportation projects around the state, it only seems polite to let us know which ones. Last Thursday, they did just that.

One key difference between the Senate’s current proposal and an earlier version released in November is that it earmarks money that would be generated by elimination of the sales tax, $840 million in total. Some $177 million would go to State Patrol salaries, $331 million for completion of the long-awaited North-South Freeway in Spokane, and $331 million for completion of the approach to the Highway 520 bridge.

Under the current proposal, $57.5 million of that is thanks to Tacoma Narrows Bridge tollpayers. That’s almost 7% of the total! So basically we’re splitting the tip.

For that kind of money we should at least get some sort of Adopt-a-Highway recognition.

Posted in Transportation, Washington State Legislature | Tagged , | Comments

Tacoma Narrows Bridge sales tax shouldn’t pay for other projects

Aerial view of the two Tacoma Narrows bridgesIf a new transportation package is to make its way through the Legislature, it seems near certain that a new arrangement for construction sales tax on highway projects will need to pass first. Last week the Senate Ways and Means committee approved such a measure.

Republicans pushing the proposal have a point. It’s odd that the state would essentially tax itself and send limited transportation dollars to the general fund. Particularly since the 18th Amendment in the Washington State Constitution stipulates that those dollars be dedicated only to transportation. Then again, it seems odd that local governments pay sales tax to the state for local projects. The state even takes a cut of local government’s share of that sales tax for administrative costs.

The problem is that it’s probably unconstitutional to simply exempt certain contractors from projects and not others. Instead, Transportation Committee Chair Senator King has proposed to leave the tax in place, but redirect those dollars back to the transportation fund. Simple, but clever.

However, for Tacoma Narrows Bridge tollpayers, therein lies the problem. You may recall that we still owe a sales tax bill on the bridge that will come due soon. In addition to escalating debt service, this is one of the costs that will continue to put upward pressure on toll prices. While it might be frustrating for tollpayers to know that their bridge tolls are going to the general fund, wait until they find out it’s now being diverted to subsidize Seattle’s tunnel or the 520 bridge.

The dark blue in the graph below shows the effect of those sales tax payments on tolls.

Graph showing annual cost for Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Fixing this problem is pretty straight forward. Sales tax paid on the TNB project should be directed back to our toll account to pay for debt service. Why not apply the same rule to all toll projects? Unlike TNB, they’re already subsidized by the transportation fund. We were the first and last project in a failed “public-private partnership” scheme that was switched to public bonds at the very last minute thanks to Representative Lantz’s efforts.

To me, this still doesn’t meet the bare minimum necessary to give TNB tollpayers a fair deal. The state abandoned its toll strategy right after sticking us with the bill. If they want us to support a statewide transportation package, we can’t be left out of it. Just as Senate Republicans see this as one of many reforms necessary to regain public trust before investing more in transportation, I see this as one of several necessary steps to regaining our region’s trust.

Posted in Gig Harbor, Key Peninsula, Pierce County, Tacoma, Transportation, Washington State Legislature | Tagged , , , , | Comments

Pierce County Council jail panel appointments are the problem

Pierce County Jail at night by Scott Hingst

Pierce County Jail by Scott Hingst

Facing a $5 million hole in the jail budget, the Pierce County Council is rightfully looking for solutions and I appreciate their willingness to dig into the issue. Unfortunately the approach sounds a lot like the problem. Not a single member of the panel is from outside Pierce County government.

From Steve Maynard at the Tacoma News Tribune:

The group’s job is to propose remedies for the jail’s declining revenue and population. Both have plunged since last January, when Tacoma shifted its misdemeanor bookings to Fife’s jail for cheaper rates.

The nine members of the panel appointed Tuesday are: Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor; Undersheriff Eileen Bisson, the jail chief who is about to retire; County Executive Pat McCarthy; Budget and Finance Director Gary Robinson; Pierce County Council Chairman Dan Roach; County Council member Jim McCune, chairman of the council’s Public Safety and Human Services Committee; County Council member Stan Flemming; one representative of the corrections deputies guild; and one representative of the corrections captains or lieutenants unions.

We are in this situation because some Pierce County cities felt like their needs weren’t being met and there’s the very real possibility that more will follow suit, further magnifying the problem.

At the least, the Council should add representatives from outside County government to the panel. But I think there’s an opportunity for a more expansive solution.

I would convene a meeting of electeds from the County and its constituent cities with the goal of forming a regional jail compact. Currently each city must make its own jail arrangements, but since the costs are public, the County’s jail customers end up paying pretty much the same amount. They also share many of the same operational constraints and concerns.

This is exactly the sort of mutual interest that lends itself well to a regional compact. More importantly, when everyone is at the table, creative solutions tend to pop up for obstacles that previously seemed insurmountable.

After setting a broad framework for agreement, the electeds should turn negotiations over to operational staff to hammer out the details.

Certainty on price and logistics is valuable to every agency and even if the County has to grant some concessions, the deficit would be reduced to a more manageable level. Cities with their own facilities — like Fife and Puyallup — could also gain something from such talks. For example, they might be a more cost effective place to house the region’s low security sentences like work release.

This crisis threatens to undermine security at the Pierce County jail and lead to cuts that could undermine public safety.  While the County and cities might be trying to find savings in their own budgets, their shared constituents are the ones losing. A dollar is a dollar, and taxpayers expect their public safety dollars to work for them regardless of whether it’s County or city government.

Posted in Cities, Jail, Pierce County, Regionalism | Tagged , , , | Comments

A fairer transportation deal for West Sound residents

Under the Tacoma Narrows Bridges at sunsetA while back I wrote about the proposal to cap tolls on Seattle’s tunnel project at around a $1, well below what Tacoma Narrows Bridge users are forced to pay for a project less than a quarter of the cost.

Since that time there have been some positive developments on regional toll policy and solutions to escalating costs that I thought the issue were worth revisiting, especially in light of another expected increase.

First and probably foremost, we were successful finding funds for a regional toll analysis at Puget Sound Regional Council. The organization does a lot of things well, but transportation and planning economics is where it really excels.

One of the focuses for discussion will be diversion. As I mentioned previously, it’s one thing to say we’re going to have user fees pay for transportation improvements, it’s quite another to actually implement that plan. Unless the route around a toll point is more expensive in time and money than the toll, people will naturally divert to the path of least resistance. In King County that means keeping tolls artificially low to prevent diversion while captive West Sound residents can be forced to pay full cost. That’s not only an unfair system, but it’s also avoidable.

Tolls aren’t the only use based fee. Contrary to claims you’ll hear around Seattle, Local Improvement Districts (LIDs) are a common way for property owners to participate in construction of infrastructure according to their benefit. Some of the properties immediately around the tunnel stand to make small fortunes. Why shouldn’t we expect them to help foot the bill with a portion of that benefit? We should at least study the possibilities before giving Seattle a pass. After all, they were the ones that demanded the most expensive and risky of the options. Now we’re seeing those risks become reality.

At my last Pierce County Regional Council meeting I was also able to gain unanimous support from my colleagues to add toll relief on TNB to our priority list for a potential transportation package. For the last couple years our focus has rightly been on Hwy 167 completion and congestion relief on I-5 around JBLM.

However, that shouldn’t be the limit of our agenda. In fact, I’m concerned that West Sound voters and legislators will reject any package that leaves us with a significantly different tax burden than the rest of the state. With a relatively small investment the transportation budget, we can cap tolls at a reasonable rate. Rep. Seaquist has taken up the cause. Chances of seeing a bill pass the Legislature this year seem remote, but if there’s movement, I’m confident Rep. Seaquist is ready.

In my mind this fits a theme that’s been around Pierce County politics as long as I’ve been on our City Council. Years ago when we were struggling, the region had been trained to accept whatever it could get. Understandably so. Our leaders were doing triage, not cosmetic surgery. But now things have changed and it’s time we demand more. We shouldn’t ask for whatever we think we can get. We should ask for what we deserve.

Posted in Gig Harbor, Taxes, Transportation, Washington State Legislature | Tagged , , , | Comments

Donkey Creek Restoration Aerial Photos & History

Councilmember Michael Perrow sent me these incredible aerial photos of the completed Donkey Creek restoration project and I had to pass them along. It also gives me an excuse to write a bit about the history of how it all happened. For details on the project funding, go here.

Donkey Creek, Harbor History Museum, and Austin Estuary facing northwest.

Facing northwest.

Those new to town may not remember Borgen’s Hardware that sat on the location of Donkey Creek Park right up against the road. George Borgen and his store were town treasures. Borgen Boulevard now bares his name for that reason. More than a business, it was a part of Gig Harbor’s heritage and a connection to the old days when it was the Austin-Erickson Mill (see pictures of property at the History Museum site).

Edit: Appears I’m not the only one with a conflicting memory of the name of the store and what I’ve found online. Or perhaps it had different names at different times. A reference on the History Museum site called it “Borgen’s Hardware” but the Secretary of State and my recollection was “Borgen Building Supply.” Thanks to Billy Sehmel for the catch.

He was also an interesting character and constantly coming up with clever in-jokes with his friends and customers. My favorite was his advertisement for free latex paint thinner, more commonly known as water. Rumor has it an eager Gateway reporter once did a story about Borgen dumping latex paint thinner into Donkey Creek. I thought about trying to find the story but really, whether it’s true is kinda beside the point.

Despite having passed 17 years ago, someone still puts out a small tree each Christmas at the park in homage to the one Borgen used to put on top of his store every year. That’s the kind of lasting impact he had on his community, family, and friends.

Donkey Creek, Harbor History Museum, and Austin Estuary facing southwest

Facing southwest

After Borgen died the property went up for sale. John Holmaas, a real estate agent who knew the property and also happened to be a passionate support of parks, urged the City to buy it. Problem was, nobody really knew what we’d do with it. Then Councilmember Owel and I both happened to be absent that meeting and the Council passed on it. We asked that it be brought back up at the next meeting and successfully convinced the Council that clear plans for the property weren’t necessary to know it’s worth to the community. It had our most intense commercial zoning so its economic potential was fairly clear, but the idea of preserving and restoring this corner of the bay had more cultural value to the community.

After the property was purchased there was initially some thought that the building would be preserved. It was one of the few remaining Austin-Erickson log buildings and there were lots of ideas of how to use the space. However, the inspection report made clear that just wasn’t an option. According to the inspector, the only thing holding it up were the carpenter ants linked in chains arm in arm.

Donkey Creek, Harbor History Museum, and Austin Estuary facing southeast

Facing southeast.

Around this time the community began developing its master plan for the site. It was quickly clear people had a much grander vision than we’d initially anticipated, incorporating several surrounding properties and “daylighting” the section of Donkey Creek which had been trapped in a small, crooked, pipe for several decades.

Eventually the Harbor History Museum began looking at acquiring the site across the road. They were critical partners in this process allowing the City to acquire easement for the stream and trail between the sites. Pierce County’s conservation futures program helped the City acquire Austin Estuary Park adding a southern border to the master plan and a pedestrian connection away from the road.

The result is an experience you will find in very few other small cities. In the physical center of town, there is now a way for the public to walk a few feet off the street and find yourself in restored habitat that will be forever protected from development.

There’s more that can be done, but that’s for another Council to handle.

Lesson’s learned

  • Don’t be limited by what can be accomplished presently. It’s important to leave room for the idea and ambition to mature.
  • Politicians tend to have short-range outlooks tied to their election cycles. The really important things worth doing will take much longer than that. Several electeds have come and gone in the time it took to find the funding and the will to get it done, but they each played a critical role.
  • Set aside reserves so you can take advantage of unexpected opportunities. We were able to afford the property because the Council had the foresight prior to my arrival of setting up a property acquisition fund — essentially a savings account for revenue that was surplus to their needs. But we almost gave up on the restoration project because funding from Congressman Dicks and Senator Murray came in the barrel of the recession when funds were short. With some juggling and a leap of faith, we figured out a way to pull it off, but it wasn’t without controversy. I’m proud to say we’ve now set up a Strategic Reserve, a longtime goal of mine, that provides a source of cash for a rainy day, grant match, or some other unexpected opportunity. The policy is to replenish the fund within three years.
  • Engage partners. This project couldn’t have happened without the History Museum, former County Councilmember Lee, the intervention of a private citizen (Wade Perrow) on construction design, or a literal Act of Congress. There were so many hands in it I hesitate to list them because I know I’ll leave someone out.
  • Plans are for preparation, not dictation. While most of the elements were there in the master plan for this site, it didn’t happen according to the neat drawings and timeline found in our Parks, Recration, and Open Space Plan.
Posted in Downtown, Gig Harbor, Parks, Roads | Tagged , , , | Comments

Gig Harbor Building Height Debate – Historic Preservation

Two buildings in downtown Gig Harbor on Harborview DRWhile view preservation was a major theme from the group opposing changes to downtown height limits, the most consistent complaint we heard from the public was actually about protecting our city’s heritage. People worried that the changes would adversely impact our historic buildings. There was little in the way of actual view impact, but this concern actually seemed like a reasonable one for people to have.

Conversely, City Staff and the Planning Commission insisted that these new limits were actually a reflection of our history. Obviously both of these things can’t be true. So which is it?

Last night Councilmember Payne read part of an email we received from the Washington State Historical Architect at the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. I had forgotten to mention this previously but thought it was important enough to note even though the ordinance passed last night. This guy is literally the authority on preserving main streets in Washington.

I don’t think I need to add commentary, but the TL;DR version is highlighted.

Gig Harbor Building Height State Historical Architect Email

Posted in Downtown, Gig Harbor, Land Use | Tagged , , | Comments

Gig Harbor Building Height Debate – Conspiracy Theories

Misunderstandings are a casualty of most political debates and everyone has fallen victim to them at some point. It’s to be expected because we all bring different levels of knowledge and experience to the table in addition to our general political beliefs.

It’s something that everyone at the City is aware of tries to respect. At any given meeting I may strongly disagree with the Mayor or a Councilmember but agree on another issue. That’s how the process is supposed to work

What is abnormal, and in my view unacceptable, is when the debate turns into personal smears and outright dishonesty. Unfortunately, that’s happened in the case of the proposed amendment to increase building height limits in downtown.

Jeni Woock, who speaks for a group calling itself “Citizens for the Preservation of Gig Harbor Waterfront,” has been saying things about our proposed downtown land use amendments for months that just aren’t true. While it’s important to clarify what’s actually happening, I’d held out hope that this was just another misunderstanding. It’s been a lot of work to explain the actual proposal to a great number of people who were rightfully scared and angry about the pictures she was posting, but most seemed to understand after we spent time walking through the changes.

However this past week, a series of online posts and emails to the Council by Ms. Woock made baseless accusations against members of the public, staff, and Council. She made the accusations referencing documents given to her by the City that actually refute her claims.

The Missing 70 Pages

Ms. Woock has made a couple public records requests that the City complied with, as it always does. Of all the documents found to include the search terms she requested, 70 pages were withheld.

What she claims:

The City was collaborating with an architect, David Boe, to allow for two story buildings in early 2012 and withheld documents in some sort of cover-up.

Boe buildable area analysis

Boe drawing of properties south of the Tides.

In February of 2012 emails began with the David Boe Associates, architectural firm, in Tacoma.  The above drawing was supplied to the city in February of 2012, and emails of Feb 2012 show the design for 2 story, flat roof buildings between The Tides and The Greet Turtle, on the waterside of Harborview Dr.  These are sites A,B,C,D.  You will notice site E, which is on the uphill side of Harborview Dr and bordered by Soundview.

timeline057

Reality:

There are no “missing” pages. They were withheld according to the rules. There are actually a great number of exemptions from public records requests. Most are very narrow and do things like protect victims of crime or the personal information of employees and customers.

In this case the documents were exempt due to Attorney Client privilege. Specifically, 22 emails between City staff and the City Attorney. While 70 pages seems like a lot, keep in mind each email, attachment, and reply is a separate page. That can add up quickly in even a brief exchange. Ms. Woock knows all this because the law requires the City to create a log describing the documents, their date, and the reason they were withheld.

It’s also contradicted by Boe’s drawing she shows above. While claiming this had something to do with 2 story buildings, it is very clearly not a drawing of buildings at all but a buildable area analysis, typical of the kind of work someone would do to determine what they could do with a property. In this case he’s making sure he understands the setback rules on each property. To be clear, there was no discussion of two story buildings whatsoever in the file Ms. Woock was given.

So where does she get the two story flat roof building information? From a later pre-application meeting with Mr. Boe to discuss a remodel of the old Boat Barn building. That’s what is referenced above on August 3rd of last year. A quirk in our code treats all interior floor space as square footage subject to our 6,000 sq ft limitation. This means that you could actually keep the same exterior shell of a building, but by adding a mezzanine or attic, increase the building’s square footage beyond the limit. Since size debates are all about bulk and scale rather than what the inside looks like, staff proposed an amendment which the Planning Commission approved, to allow increases of interior space beyond the limits.

This is a pretty common sense way to increase the utility and encourage preservation of historic buildings. I don’t know why Ms. Woock represents this discussion as the construction of a new flat roof two story building, but it’s actually the remodel of an existing, historic, pitched roof building.

It’s worth keeping in mind their disgust with our most historically significant buildings as we wrap up this debate. That’s been the problem all along. In this small section of downtown two story buildings are actually the norm. Our comprehensive plan clearly anticipates these types of buildings. To represent this as some sort of radical departure from our history or values just doesn’t hold up to the lightest scrutiny. As a result, Ms. Woock has resorted to a campaign of absolute nonsense using pictures of buildings that would not be allowed under our current or proposed rules.

Getting back to the “missing 70 pages” rather that making baseless accusations, there is a remedy that I pointed her to under the law. She can have the Superior Court review the documents to make a determination if they were properly witheld.

In fact, I would encourage her to do so. The truth is the best method of undermining conspiracy theories.

Posted in Comprehensive Plan, Downtown, Gig Harbor, Land Use | Tagged , , , | Comments

Gig Harbor building height debate – open house & public hearing tonight

I’ve been meaning to get back to this but I’ve been swamped with work. Hopefully nobody depends on my blog for notice, but in case you do, there is an open house and public hearing tonight on the proposed zoning changes for the downtown waterfront.

This is your opportunity to learn more, ask questions, and give testimony on the proposed ordinance. The open house is from 3:30-5pm and the public hearing will be near the start of our regular Council meeting at 5:30pm. Visit gigharborplanning.com for more details.

Council Procedure

One thing you should not expect tonight is a vote by the Council. Although the issue was a part of a previous ordinance and carved out after we received demands for more public comment, this is the first reading. Under standard Council procedure, votes are cast at the 2nd or 3rd reading.

Jeni Woock, who runs the Facebook page for Citizens for Preservation of the Gig Harbor Waterfront, had posted that we will vote tonight. I decided to clarify that this isn’t the case, which has clearly upset her. She seems to think it’s an effort to hide our votes, which will be cast at a public meeting like every other. In an email she wrote:

This is not the time for you to make changes to this amendment, kick on down the road, in hopes that you can pass this with no one watching.
Citizens of Gig Harbor want no changes to the amendment to put off this vote, no side stepping maneuver to put off this vote.
Gig Harbor residents know that you are planning to side step and not make a vote on Oct 14.  We also know that it is well within your ability to vote on this amendment  Oct 14.

The demand that there be no amendments is puzzling. That’s the sort of thing the public process is all about. In fact we already made changes to the previous ordinance based on testimony that we received.

But the implication that there is some sort of plan to dodge the public is simply false. Ms. Woock has been a part of this process from the beginning. There have been several meetings and open houses already at both the Planning Commission and Council level. If we’re trying to hide, we’re the worst at it.

In an effort to prove her point she quotes some code that is intended for emergencies or issues that have a timeline imposed on us. In those cases we can, with a supermajority, pass ordinances on the first reading. But this method is rarely used and only when absolutely necessary.

This is my 16th year on the Council and I can tell you that even the most uncontroversial and routine bills come back for a 2nd reading. It’s so standard that when she suggests there’s a “plan” in place, I was just citing our normal procedure. There has never been a discussion either way nor would there have to be.

If the idea is actually to listen to the public, shouldn’t we take time to digest the testimony and respond to it? Of course, if the idea is to put on a spectacle rather than change any minds, then I can see how demanding a snap vote makes sense.

Development Agreements

I’ve written about this previously, but unfortunately the drawings being shown by this group are growing increasingly misleading.

Here’s an example of what I mean. It’s supposedly a depiction of what you can expect on Harborview facing south just past the Tides.

Depiction of downtown Gig Harbor with huge buildings under development agreements

Keep in mind, the height limit is 27 feet (two stories) under both current and proposed rules. There is also a 6,000 square foot buildings size limitation and each of these appears to be several times over that cap. Nevermind all the building design regulations that make these ugly forms impossible.

So how to justify the images? With the wave of the hand:

When 2 story buildings are allowed anywhere on the waterside of Harborview Dr. the only choice the folks on uphill Harborview Dr to see their view is to go BIG and UP. Yep, it is already in the code!!!

It is true, through a contract called a development agreement, a supermajority of the City Council can approve deviation from the code. However, this provision is designed for an occasion when the project would provide superior public benefit than strict adherence to the code would allow. Key word… superior. Giving yourself a view over a neighboring property is not a justification allowed under the code. The notion that it would be their “only choice” is simply untrue.

Here is the list of requirements that must be met to qualify:

i. The project is consistent with the adopted vision for the Harbor; and

ii. The project preserves significant historic structures or demonstrates preservation and enhancement of the existing downtown character; and

iii. The project will provide public amenities above that required by the existing zoning standards, including but not limited to parks, shoreline access, plazas, and/or pedestrian connections; and

iv. The project will result in a superior design solution to what would otherwise be achieved by applying the specific requirements of Chapter 17.99 GHMC, Design Manual; and

In other words, if a developer had an idea that would actually provide a greater view or access to the waterfront as this group seems to desire, this makes it possible for the Council to negotiate that benefit. Nothing in this or any proposed code would allow the picture above.

If you can’t make it to the meeting, but would like to know more, staff has put together a great presentation to show you what the Planning Commission has actually proposed. I encourage you to take a look and email us your comments. If you’d like to discuss it personally, I’m available by phone or I can meet in person.

Posted in Downtown, Gig Harbor, Land Use | Tagged , , | Comments

Does this toll plan sound fair?

Under the Tacoma Narrows Bridges at sunset

I’m a regionally thinking advocate for transportation and infrastructure funding. I expect it to be focused on areas where it will have the greatest return on investment, often counter to our parochial interests. I think I’ve been pretty patient trying to get people to understand just how unfairly we’re treated on the west side of Puget Sound.

My patience has now run out.

You probably recall that Tacoma Narrows Bridge tolls started at $3 but users now pay at a minimum, $4.25 for a project that cost $720 million. Yes, unfortunately we’re footing the whole bill. If efforts to get some relief for the TNB toll account aren’t approved, those costs will escalate rapidly in coming years due to a long delayed sales tax payment and the structure of the bonds.

It’s apparently a VERY different story for Seattle. The tunnel replacing the Alaska Way Viaduct budget is $3 billion (few think it will stay there) but according to this report, they may only pay $1 tolls with costs escalating slower than average annual inflation.

After seven tries, the folks studying Highway 99 tunnel tolls may have untangled a knot — by suggesting a simple rate of $1.25 peak and $1 the rest of the time.

Those amounts are reduced from earlier peak numbers (as high as $3) that threatened to cause intolerable traffic diversion onto downtown Seattle streets, yet they exceed some low-cost scenarios (as cheap as 50 cents midday) that would tear a hole in the tunnel’s budget.

The difference between Seattle and West Sound residents is that they have other options. We’re a captive audience without another good way to get where we need to go. For those of us further south, it’s TNB. In Kitsap it’s the ferry system whose users also cover a huge portion of the system’s operating costs.

However, there are ways to deal with what transportation economists call diversion (basically toll roads pushing people to free surface street options). For example, we could toll the whole corridor rather than just the tunnel structure. After all, those surface street users benefit from not having all that tunnel traffic dumped into downtown. Same theory applies to cross-lake travel at Hwy 520 & I-90.

The point being that before we just throw our hands up and let tunnel users pay a tiny fraction of their project costs, we should work on a regional toll plan that actually thinks these issues through. Just today I was at our Puget Sound Regional Council Executive Board meeting and we approved a routine amendment to our Transportation Improvement Plan. In it was a funding strategy for the tunnel project that said at a minimum, $200m would come from tolls. While still less than a third of what we’re paying at TNB, I now wonder if these $1 tolls weren’t already anticipated.

Wish I had seen this article before the meeting. I’ve asked for months to start work on a regional plan to ensure tolling equity. It’s now clear I should have been demanding it much earlier.

Posted in Gig Harbor, Regionalism, Tacoma, Transportation | Tagged , , , | Comments