Edmonds council reverses course for Hwy 99-area stepbacks, OKs preferred 2023 city attorney contract option

Architectural rendering of Terrace Place project at 236th Street Southwest and 84th Avenue West.

Updated to clarify the council voted on a preferred city attorney contract that includes a 7.5% fee increase. The final contract will be voted on Dec. 6.

Edmonds City Council reversed course Tuesday night, deciding by a 4-3 vote to approve a preliminary action to vacate an emergency ordinance — approved unanimously Oct. 4 — that was aimed at ensuring that new development across the street from single-family zones provides stepbacks.

The interim ordinance would have applied to the Highway 99 area of Edmonds zoned general commercial as part of the Highway 99 subarea plan, which was approved by the council in 2017. The plan consolidated most of the zoning categories for the Highway 99 corridor into one general commercial (CG) designation. In the plan, stepback requirements were included for multifamily buildings adjacent to single-family properties, but not for those located across the street.

The council approved the ordinance Oct. 4 in response to concerns expressed by residents in the Gateway neighborhood, located just west of Highway 99, regarding the 261-unit Terrace Place apartment proposed at 236th Street Southwest and 84th Avenue West. Stepbacks, they argued, would provide an additional separation and more light between a large apartment building and single-family residences.

Tuesday’s vote represented a turnaround from the council’s unanimous decision last week, which directed City Attorney Jeff Taraday to prepare findings of fact to continue it through April 6, 2023. That decision was made despite a staff recommendation last week that the council vacate the ordinance, pointing to the implications of setback requirements on developers who have already begun working on project designs.

On Monday, there was a tour of the Terrace Place site attended by Gateway residents, city staff, developers and three councilmembers — Dave Teitzel, Susan Paine and Vivian Olson — which councilmembers agreed was helpful in visualizing the project and its impacts on the neighborhood.

Planning and Development Services Director Susan McLaughlin

One of the factors influencing the council’s change of direction was the belief that the stepbacks wouldn’t provide the mitigation the neighborhood was seeking. In a presentation to the council Tuesday night, Planning and Development Director Susan McLaughlin stated that the roadway itself already adds “that significant separation, that barrier that reduces the impact to the property across the street.”

Using the Terrace Place project as an example, she noted that there is already 115 feet of separation, which includes the required building setbacks plus 85 feet of street width. “What that does is, from a shadowing perspective, it means that stepbacks often times will not make much if any difference in providing additional relief of shading,” McLaughlin said. The CG-zoned properties, she added, are already required to provide a streetscape zone, which includes landscaping and street trees, and comply with design guidelines including a high-quality facade.

McLaughlin also noted, as she did last week, that the council in 2017 considered requiring stepbacks across the street from single-family zones but dismissed the idea.

In addition, she pointed out that development services staff can approve stepbacks for any project “if we really do think that on a case-by-case that they would assist in reducing the massing.”

Councilmember Neil Tibbott

Councilmember Neil Tibbott moved to vacate the interim ordinance, stating “there are better ways to evaluate any project that’s coming up along the CG zones.” He also noted that Edmonds’ Highway 99 revitalization project, now underway, represents “the largest redevelopment project in the history of our city.” That project will benefit both current and future residents and businesses, he said, adding he looks forward to “the upgrades that can happen as these developments go in up and down Highway 99.”

Councilmember Jenna Nand

Councilmember Jenna Nand, who lives in the Highway 99 neighborhood, spoke in favor of upholding the ordinance, stating it’s an equity issue. “There’s a significant perception that it’s OK to impose these changes from the top down on the majority of a more working-class community of people of color than it would be to do in the Edmonds Bowl,” Nand said. “We need to signal to the community that their concerns are being heard and that they will receive the same level of care and attention to their desires and wants…as the much more affluent members who live in the Edmonds Bowl and are more comfortable with our political process.”

Councilmember Dave Teitzel

Teitzel said the council “has also heard very clearly (from Gateway residents) that there is a need for additional sidewalk improvements, traffic safety improvements, park space…and we’re addressing that in the 2023 (city) budget on a separate and parallel track.”

Council President Vivian Olson acknowledged that the Gateway community “is looking for a mitigation, but I really feel that this mitigation (the stepbacks) is not going to deliver on anything that’s going to make them happy.” She also said she believes staff, the council and the developers are committed “to delivering on something that is a real positive for the neighbors.”

Speaking to Tibbott’s motion, Taraday noted that there was no interim ordinance in the council packet to vacate, since the city attorney had been directed — based on last week’s vote — to prepare findings of fact to continue it. If the motion is approved, Taraday said, he will bring back a measure to repeal the ordinance — likely at the council’s next meeting, which is Dec. 6. (There’s no meeting Nov. 29.)

In the end, the final vote was 4-3, with Councilmembers Olson, Teitzel, Paine and Tibbott in support of ordinance vacation and the council’s two Highway 99-area residents — Nand and Will Chen — joining Buckshnis in voting against it.

In another matter Tuesday night, the council discussed the city’s legislative agenda, hearing from Community Services and Economic Development Director Todd Tatum and the city’s Olympia lobbyist, Debora Munguia.

Councilmembers added a number of additional items to the agenda, one of which — from Nand — called for rejecting state legislators’ attempts to implement mandatory density requirements for cities. It was seconded by Councilmember Diane Buckshnis, who said she believes zoning decisions need to remain local, and approved unanimously by the council.

You can read the draft agenda — prior to amendments — here. The final agenda with changes will come before the council again for approval.

The council also spent significant time discussing options for extending the contract of Lighthouse Law Group, which provides attorney services for the city. The Lighthouse contract expires at the end of the year and a council work group has been researching a one-year extension through 2023 while it looks at whether to renew for a longer-term contract.

Councilmember Susan Paine

Councilmember Paine — a work group member along with Teitzel and Chen — first requested that the council consider extending its contract with another law firm — Madrona Law Group — for up to $2,500. Madrona had been brought in as an independent party to review the Lighthouse 12-month contract, and the work group requested further involving the firm for additional contract work and also to review public records requests. That request — coming out of the council’s contingency fund — was approved unanimously.

Paine then presented two Lighthouse contract options for 2023 for the council to consider:

A flat-fee contract, very similar to what the city is used to, since Lighthouse receives a monthly fee from the city and does not bill hourly. This contract:

  • Includes a 7.5% increase from 2022 rates, based on the Consumer Price Index.
  • Removes the need for city attorney attendance at council committee meetings as well as other boards and commissions, unless requested
  • Has no changes in available hours

A retainer fee contract, based on the hourly rates that are 95% of what Lighthouse charges another long-term client, the City of Maple Valley. The hours allocated are 85% of the average of the past four years of Edmonds usage. In this contract:

  • Hourly rates are divided into two classes; each rate class has a certain number of hours anticipated to meet the contract budget
  • Removes the need for city attorney attendance at council committee meetings as well as other boards/commissions, unless requested

Both contracts also included language that would allow Lighthouse Law Group to  respond to community commentary from time to time, “within the bounds of Rules of Professional Conduct.” The idea, Taraday said, is to ensure that dialogues occuring outside the council chambers about city business are accurate. “Just in the interest of a more informed civil discourse in the community, I think that the city attorney can play a role, with council permission, in contributing to that.”

Councilmembers Buckshnis, Chen and Teitzel expressed concerns that such city attorney responses could take up too much time, especially if council goes with hourly rate. But others said they saw the value of such exchanges, with Olson stating they could building trust. A motion by Buckshnis to strike that language was defeated on a 3-4 vote, with Olson, Paine, Nand and Tibbott voting no.

The council then voted unanimously to approve that the work group take the updated flat-fee contract option back to Madrona Law for review and finalization. The final version will come back to the council on Dec. 6 for a final vote.

Prior to the vote, work group members Teitzel and Chen cautioned the council that it would need to learn to be disciplined in using attorney hours under the retainer fee contract. Teitzel noted that Chen had a good analogy, describing the flat-rate system as “a buffet style, it’s all you can eat…but it’s not the real world in terms of the way these contracts normally work.”

According to Taraday, Edmonds is the only city in the state that pays a flat-rate contract for city attorney services.

Jessica Neill Hoyson

The council also approved a proposal from the city’s human resources department to provide 7% cost-of-living salary adjustments for the city’s non-represented employees in 2023, along with 100% employer-paid health care premiums (the city currently covers 90% of those premiums for employees).

To come up with non-represented cost-of-living increases, which are considered every year, the city looks at existing contracts with its union employees, rates of comparator organizations and the consumer price index (CPI), which as of June was 10.1%, Human Resources Director Jessica Neill Hoyson said. The current 2023 buget had set the rate of 5.5% but an increase was recommended based on the latest CPI numbers, she added.

The 7% wage adjustment will cost an additional $99,533 in wages and the increased benefits will cost $30,983 for 2023.

The council also agreed to provide part-time non-represented employees with the same health care benefits as full-time employees, and approved a range of other benefit perks for its non-union workers. Among them:

– Providing employees who opt out of city-provided health care with $300 monthly.

– Providing a $300 contribution to a VEBA plan, a benefit plan that reimburses medical care expenses and premiums.

– Increasing the management leave for employees not eligible for compensatory time from 24 hours to 80 hours per year. This must be used during the calendar year and can’t be carried over, Neill Hoyson said.

In other business, the council:

– Learned from City Attorney Taraday that the Ebb Tide Condominiums have appealed an Oct. 14 Snohomish County Superior Court ruling that would have allowed the city to complete the “missing link” to its existing easement across a section of private beach.

– Heard a presentation from Council President Olson — serving as mayor pro tem as Mayor Mike Nelson was absent Tuesday — proclaiming Nov. 26 as Small Business Saturday in Edmonds.

— By Teresa Wippel

  1. Editor – Please revise the headline of this article. The issue is not about a commercial building on Highway 99. The issue is about 6 story tall buildings that are NOT on highway 99 and will be across the street from single family residences. The affected streets are the boundaries of the Hwy99 Planned Action area that face 84th Ave W, 76th Ave W, and the cross streets of 224th, 228th, 232nd, 234th, and 236th. On those surrounding streets, the city used to allow apartment buildings as tall as 30 feet. Since the up-zoning decision in 2017, the city allows 75 foot buildings. I also request that you replace the article’s lead photo of the Development Services department director with a photo of the planned building at 84th/236th. (design review # PLN2002-0047). The current Dev Svc director is new to Edmonds, and had no involvement with the up-zoning decision in 2017.

    1. Theresa — apologies. We’ve clarified it’s in the Highway 99 area – hard to fit all that in a headline. Also will look for the image you noted and add it if found. I used photos of many of those speaking last night and Director McLaughlin was one of those.

  2. You plunk a 261 unit building across the street from single family housing there’s obviously going to be some issues with the local residents. I guess that’s part of the tradeoff, a huge building if you want big improvements to the neighborhood. Council member Nand does have a point that “There’s a significant perception that it’s OK to impose these changes from the top down on the majority of a more working-class community of people of color than it would be to do in the Edmonds Bowl”. Good to have her join the Council.

  3. I am wondering how many of these huge 7 story buildings the council is planning to approve for the Edmonds stretch of Highway 99. I am also wondering how much of Edmonds’ obligation under the Growth Management Act to plan for the next 20 years of housing is going to be built in this one neighborhood?

    1. please note that this building in NOT on highway 99. that is the reason neighbors are protesting it’s design. it faces 84th, across the street from single family homes. it’s side is on 236th, across from Edmonds Lutheran Church. it’s location has been an empty lot for over 20 years.

  4. Hi Susan, if all we need it to hit the GMA target is numbers we will likely hit those without including the folks in new building along HWY 99. But there is more to the GMA requirements than just population.

    I get the sense that our elected are not very concerned about GMA but they should be and probably are much more concerned about the update to the Comprehensive Plan. The CP is much more than number of people.

    After the work the city did to hold neighborhood sessions and collection more than 8500 comments, they have crafted a “vision” statement. It is worth reading. During the sessions we were told that there would be various forms of analysis of the 8500 comments. I have not been about to find any information on the city web site that allow citizens to view and learn for themselves what was said in those 8500 comments.

    Has anyone been able to find this information?

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