Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling’s latest Town Hall meeting was mostly focused on routine reports on city projects. But the last 30 minutes was anything but routine, as several citizens grilled the mayor on what has become a hot-button issue — development of the city’s draft housing strategy.
At the start of the meeting, held Wednesday, Sept. 19 at downtown Edmonds’ North Sound Center, Earling acknowledged that some in the audience of about 100 were attending specifically to discuss that very issue. He also said he was aware that fliers that had been passed out in Edmonds neighborhoods related to the housing strategy.
“What is on those handouts does a great disservice to the community, because many of the things that are there simply aren’t true,” Earling said.
Driving the creation of a housing strategy is the City of Edmonds Comprehensive Plan, a city council-approved document that calls for Edmonds to develop a housing strategy by 2019. The Housing Strategy Task Force has been meeting regularly, and has retained the services of Berk Consulting to assist. The first draft was presented at an open house in May, followed by a city council presentation in July and another public meeting in late August. Then, in early September, the city sent out an announcement stating it will start reviewing workshop notes and figuring out next steps for the process.
The process has drawn a chorus of vocal opponents, who have expressed concerns that it could lead to negative consequences for the city — from crime to overcrowding.
Wednesday night’s meeting was no different. After all of the mayor’s department directors completed their updates, Earling then opened the floor to questions. Most of those were directed at the housing strategy effort, which has been underway since 2017, when Earling appointed a task force to look at the issue.
A couple of the speakers called out the mayor for being critical of the fliers distributed about the meeting.
“We’re here because we care about Edmonds,” one man said.
“And passing out fliers is part of a healthy democratic process,” a woman added.
One attendee asked: “How can you ask the citizens of Edmonds to support your strategy, if we don’t know the expected benefit and their expected costs? When will your leadership bring the strategy to reality?” As an example, the man noted that the draft strategy called for property tax and sales taxes, but no mention of exact amounts of those taxes or what benefit those expenses would have. In addition, the strategy lists a possible reallocation of the city’s general fund revenue and multiple fee waivers. “How large will the loss of fees be and for what expected benefit?” the questioner asked.
Earling replied that the housing strategy is still in the development stage — about 40 or 50 percent complete. When a final strategy is proposed, “and there are some of the taxes that you imply we might do, there will be a strategy on how we approach that,” he said. As a result, the mayor added, he can’t answer specific questions about cost and benefit “because we still don’t know what the plan will be.”
Development Services Director Shane Hope, who is leading the housing strategy effort, added that a number of items mentioned in the question were taken from the assessment of housing tools located in the strategy’s appendix. That appendix includes “a whole list of things that the city could consider,'” she said. Some of the ideas may remain in the final draft, Hope said, but “many are things the city is not interested in doing.”
For comparison purposes, she cited the comprehensive plan citywide that calls for Edmonds to reduce its energy usage. In that plan, the city also doesn’t quantify the cost. “Those are the general goals that we are trying to do,” she said. Similarly, the city’s draft Urban Forest Management Plan looks at ways to help protect trees citywide. “Does that say to do this — any of these particular actions — do we know what that’s going to cost? No. But it says we are going to head in this direction — whatever gets decided — and at each stage we come back and look at what the priorities are, what is it going to cost, what are the various options we could choose, what’s the public process to get there and then we go forward,” Hope said.
One woman said she lives within a one-mile radius of the proposed Edmonds Lutheran Church/Compass Housing project on Highway 99 and 238th Street Southwest, which has been proposed to house 60-70 low-income residents in the Aurora Marketplace neighborhood. She asked if the project would bring criminal felons and people with substance abuse problems into Edmonds neighborhoods, “and if such projects should be allowed.”
The project is the result of a partnership between Edmonds Lutheran Church, Compass Housing Alliance , and home manufacturer Blokable. (See our previous story here). Bill Anderson, an Edmonds Lutheran Church parishioner who has been working on the project, assured the group that residents will be screened before they move in and that there will be a social worker on site to ensure that any tenant problems are addressed. (See more on that in another previous story.)
Addressing comments by attendees suggesting that the city is accommodating the Edmonds Lutheran project by rezoning the area for it, Hope said that the project is already allowable within the area’s current multi-family zoning, “whether it’s for people who have less money or people who have more money.
“We don’t control in our city what the income level of people needs to be to have housing,” she said. “There are all kinds of housing options being discussed and they are not all about people with low incomes,” Hope said.
Another attendee who lives in the neighborhood said that the Edmonds Lutheran Church project is being developed next to a single-family neighborhood, with no buffer.
“We are dealing with homeless people right now, camping out near the church, across the street from the church, in the church parking lot,” he said.
“My wife was threatened two weeks ago walking across the street near Safeway, walking to work in the morning, from a homeless intoxicated person who pursued her,” he said. “We have issues here. My family walks to Safeway but we have to go around homeless people walking the walkway.”
The man also said he lives next door to a rental home, where homeless people “are living in their cars and then go inside the home each morning to take showers.”
To address the concerns of those living in the Highway 99/238th Street Southwest area, Earling proposed setting up a meeting with the Edmonds police chief to identify possible solutions.
Another attendee at Thursday’s meeting said that the city has been focusing on the positive aspects of the draft housing strategy and doesn’t appear to be addressing the negatives, including the impacts that increased housing density will have on the city’s infrastructure. As an example, he pointed to the 90-unit apartment now being built at Westgate near Bartell Drugs and questioned whether there would be enough parking for those who live there. He added that his brother lives next to the nearby cemetery and has noticed construction workers from the Westgate project are parking in his neighborhood.
Hope assured the man that there will be “more than one parking space” provided for every resident as part of the new Westgate development.
“I’m just concerned about Edmonds in general being overpopulated,” the attendee said. Hope acknowledged that concern, noting that Edmonds is facing growth like every other city in the Puget Sound region. City staff considers the impacts of proposed projects on streets, sewers and infrastructure and works to plan for them, she said. She also stressed that the growth in Edmonds will be relatively small compared to other areas. “We are not talking about adding 10,000 new units in our city, it’s not going to happen,” she said.
Another attendee suggested the city consider conducting “a real survey among citizens,” asking what they want to see in a housing strategy. The mayor replied he would consult with staff about that idea and see what might be possible.
The final question related to the housing strategy came from a woman who told the mayor that while she heard him emphasize that there is no final strategy yet, it appears to her that many city zoning changes “have already been made that support and enable this strategy to be implemented quickly” — and that has happened prior to a vote of the city council.
“This smacks of a lack of transparency,” she said.
Earling reiterated that no council vote will be taken regarding a housing strategy “until there is something final to be voted on. We’re part way through the process and when it comes out the other end, there will be public notice there will be public meetings and it will then go to the council and council will make their decision.”
It should be noted that the mayor and his staff also fielded other questions not related to the housing strategy. Among them:
– One resident said she read that the city has taken an interest in possible future redevelopment of Edmonds’ Five Corners neighborhood. She noted that the neighborhood — which is crowded with students walking to Edmonds-Woodway High School and College Place Middle School — is already experiencing congestion and parking problems due to new homes being built in the area.
“We will be doing some work on the Five Corners area to try to develop a strategy to make improvements,” Earling replied, “but we are no where near having any kind of edict about what is coming.” He encouraged her to monitor announcements of future meetings on the topic, so that when planning work begins she and any interested neighbors can be involved in the discussion.
— Another resident wondered if the city ever pursued the idea raised several years ago to dig a trench that would allow trains to run along the Edmonds waterfront without blocking street traffic. The mayor replied that the city did investigate the idea, but added that because the BNSF railroad owns the tracks and the right of way, “there wasn’t a chance in the world that was going to happen without a very long, prolonged fight.”
Instead, the mayor explained that the city is pursuing the idea of an overpass running from Edmonds Street to Brackett’s Landing Park that will ensure emergency vehicles can have access to the waterfront during train track blockages.
Earling recognized that there are still a range of opinions about the overpass, known as the Edmonds Street Waterfront Connector, and more discussion will happen prior to project approval. “My first job in this role is to keep our community safe,” he said. “And that (the connector) will guarantee or come as close as we can to giving 24/7 access for an emergency vehicle to come out of our fire station here and be four blocks away over the overpass… and get to the people who need the attention.”
Earling said the project also provides an added bonus: Most of the time people would be able to use it to get down to the beach, and as a result will be able to walk from Sunset Avenue north to the other end of the Port of Edmonds – “a continuous walk,” Earling said. “That’s the sort of the thing that will help us become a city of daytime attractions. And that they will say this was fun, let’s go to Arnie’s or Anthony’s to have lunch.”
Several questions were also asked by Boy Scouts who attended part of the meeting, including one who wanted to know what the city is doing to prevent waste from entering Puget Sound.
City Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director Carrie Hite replied that the city sponsors quarterly beach clean-ups and works to educate homeowners on ways to prevent pollution in the streams that feed into Puget Sound, such as not using pesticides and taking their car to a car wash. Public Works Director Phil Williams also pointed to the city’s wastewater treatment plant and storm water management systems, and mentioned that Edmonds was one of the first cities in the state to ban plastic bags, and is also now working on a ban for single-use plastic items like straws, stirrers and cutlery.
“A lot of that stuff can end up floating around in Puget Sound,” Williams said.
— Story and photos by Teresa Wippel