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20 December 2006 @ 04:30 pm
Renton Reporter: Task force continues to work on tackling Highlands issues  
Task force continues to work on tackling Highlands issues

By: EMILY GARLAND December 20, 2006

Change don't come easy - especially to the Highlands.

The redevelopment that has been planned for more than a decade still hasn't happened. And because of two recent appeals, zoning for about 150 acres in one of the oldest parts of the neighborhood still hasn't been finalized. But progress is being made.

"We definitely accomplished a lot from mid-2006 - where it seemed like we had really lost the support of the community - until the end of 2006, where we have support from almost everyone in the community," City Council President Randy Corman said.

This support was gained largely because of the appointment of the Highlands Task Force (HTF) in October. The community advisory group's creation quelled the storm of criticism city staff members had been deluged with since early this year when residents caught wind of an aggressive redevelopment scheme for the Highlands.
After a month of work, HTF recently made its zoning and land-use recommendations, and they were approved by City Council with only minor changes.

But before the amendments could be finalized, two appeals were filed challenging the decision made by city staff members that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is not required before implementing the zoning and land-use changes.

These appellants fear that the environment could be damaged by the new zoning, which a city report says would result in an approximate increase of 745 dwelling units, 121,033 square feet of retail space and 10,567 vehicle trips per day. Further, the appellants claim the city is legally bound by the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) to evaluate the environmental impact of the project in an EIS.

An EIS is a document that describes the environmental impact of a proposed action and the information required to evaluate this impact. It often includes alternatives that would reduce or eliminate these impacts.

Rebecca Lind, Renton's long-range planning manager, and Larry Warren, the city's attorney, say that an EIS is not required in this case. Environmental Impact Statements are used for specific construction projects, Lind says, and zoning is all that has been proposed for the Highlands.

"The law does state we should start environmental review as soon as possible, but our position is this is too soon," Warren said.
Utilities-wise, the Highlands has been prepared to handle more people, buildings and traffic for some time, Lind added.
The Highlands was last covered in a citywide EIS before Renton's comprehensive plan was updated in 1995, Lind said. No EIS has been done only on the Highlands.

Highlands Task Force member Howard McOomber is happy to add more buildings and people to the Highlands. But he would like to see proof, in the form of an EIS, that this growth will not cause adverse environmental impacts.

"Everyone who lives up there would love to have 1,000 units per acre, but I don't think the ground could survive," McOomber said. "We're the guys with the most to gain by upzoning because we would have an increase in property values, but we're just saying, 'Wait a minute, let's make sure this is scientifically viable.'"
The appeals have not been scheduled with the city's hearing examiner, but likely won't be heard until Feb. 27 at City Hall.
At that point, hearing examiner Fred Kaufman will rule if the city is required to do an EIS before implementing the new zoning. Kaufman will also decide if the public hearings regarding the Highlands were advertised and carried out in a manner that allowed residents to have the proper legal input, a complaint included in one of the appeals.

The cost of an EIS and the time it takes to complete depends on what studies are determined necessary, Lind said. But when the city makes a decision not to do an EIS, it has nothing to do with cost, she added.

Whatever the cost of the EIS, HTF Chair Kirk Moore believes that the $75 it costs to file an appeal is much too low.

"I could panhandle $75 a day and file an appeal," he said. Moore suggested that the fee be raised to $500 at a recent City Council meeting.

Although the task-force recommendations - which moderately upzone most of the study area - have been criticized for their similarity to the zoning and land use proposed by the city, Moore is satisfied with the outcome.

"It isn't a perfect plan - no plan is perfect," he said. "But we really tried to bridge the gap between where we're going, where we are today and how we're going to get there."

"And maybe because two individual groups came up with the same plan, maybe that means that's a good idea for the area," Moore added.

Highlands resident Terry Persson thinks so.
"As far as I'm concerned, the task force is a success," he said.

Highlands Task Force recommendations
After meeting twice a week for a month, the nine-member citizen advisory group decided to moderately upzone much of the nearly 150-acre study area in the Highlands.
Although the group has been criticized for churning out a report similar to the land use and zoning proposed by the city, the citizen group suggested significant differences.
The task force:
* Determined that all existing residential use types in the area be designated legal and conforming, which means that property owners may expand or enlarge their homes.
* Removed the provision that required property owners to remove an existing housing unit before subdividing their lot.
* Upzoned some land owned by the Renton Housing Authority and added an incentive to allow nonprofit agencies to add more units to affordable housing developments.

Emily Garland can be reached at emily.garland@reporternews
papers.com or (253) 437-6009.