Clarified ruling keeps city in line to meet growth goals

October 31, 2012 

A Thurston County Superior Court judge’s initial ruling in the controversial proposal to build a new 7-Eleven store at Harrison Avenue and Division Street on the City of Olympia’s west side appeared to draw a curious conclusion.

Ruling in favor of west side residents opposed to construction of two separate one-story buildings at the site, Judge Lisa Sutton seemed to say the City of Olympia’s comprehensive plan took precedent over the property’s current zoning.

Without clarification, that ruling could have forced all new development along the city’s High Density Corridors into buildings of multiple stories, and should have triggered an outcry from the South Sound commercial real estate community.

However, the city has interpreted Sutton’s decision to be based upon the facts and arguments made specifically for this case.

It is true that the city’s comprehensive plan aspires to multi-story, mixed-use development along the High Density Corridors, which includes streets such as Harrison, State, Pacific and other major connecting arteries.

There is simply no way to meet the state’s mandated growth goals outlined in the Growth Management Act without building up, and that means creating a more direct relationship between population densities and ease of access to transportation infrastructure. In other words, providing housing above commercial space, so people can live close to public transit links.

But it sometimes takes years to change the redevelopment of properties to achieve the visions of the city’s comprehensive plan, which is really a high-level vision for long-term development.

While the city envisions higher densities along its key transportation corridors, it has not rezoned every piece of property in those areas.

The ultimate goal, of course, is that Olympia’s underlying zoning for every parcel of land within its jurisdiction would match up the with comprehensive plan’s vision. This is the goal of every city in the state. It’s just a long and complicated process.

The city’s comprehensive plan has included High Density Zones since 2000, yet since then it has permitted many single-story structures in the targeted corridors. It has proceeded on facts specific to each individual case.

Olympia’s vision for higher densities along key corridors seemed to conflict with its recent rejection of a six-story high-rise apartment complex close to Harrison Avenue. But that project near Sunrise Park did not include mixed use and, according to city staff, had other case-specific problems, including access through a shopping complex.

Fortunately, city legal staff was successful in modifying Sutton’s final ruling to indicate it applied to the Harrison 7-Eleven case only, and did not create a precedent that all commercial structures in High Density Corridors must be multi-story.

MAJ Development Corp. of Vancouver, Wash., and 1919 Harrison LLC, the owner of the property, proposed the 7-Eleven project, city staff approved it and Hearing Examiner Thomas Bjorgen gave it the green light.

But when west side residents took the case to Thurston County Superior Court, Sutton ruled in favor of the residents, quashing the development. The developers appealed, but have decided to withdraw.

In the end, everyone won, except the developer. Residents’ voices were heard and the city narrowed the ruling to a specific site.

As Mayor Stephen Buxbaum said, “I think now the real work will come in our carefully aligning our development regulations with our new comprehensive plan.”

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