Council OKs emergency ordinance creating design review process for Highway 99-area development

Edmonds City Councilmembers meeting on Saturday.

Publisher’s note: The article has been updated to correct some councilmembers’ votes. We appreciate those who alert us to errors.

During a Saturday afternoon meeting, the Edmonds City Council voted 6-0 to approve an emergency interim ordinance creating a design review process through the city’s Architectural Design Board (ADB) for certain projects zoned general commercial (CG) as part of the Highway 99 subarea plan.

Councilmember Jenna Nand was absent.

The action, during a continuation of the council’s Dec. 6 meeting, was aimed at addressing concerns voiced by residents of Edmonds’ Gateway neighborhood — located just west of Highway 99 — related to a planned 261-unit apartment building there.

The Highway 99 subarea plan, which was approved by the council in 2017, consolidated most of the zoning categories for the Highway 99 corridor into one 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 had been scheduled Dec. 6 to vote on whether to vacate an earlier emergency ordinance — approved unanimously Oct. 4 — that was aimed at ensuring that new developments across the street from single-family zones in the Highway 99 subarea provide stepbacks. On Nov. 22, the council by a 4-3 vote reversed course on that Oct. 4 decision, approving a preliminary action to vacate the ordinance.

That ordinance vacation appeared on the council’s Tuesday consent agenda, meaning it could be approved without further council discussion. But Councilmember Nand signaled her intent to pull the item off consent so the council could debate it further. After holding an executive session, the council announced it would delay any discussion on the consent agenda — including the stepback ordinance — until a future date. The council then approved an order of adjournment to continue the meeting at noon Saturday.

The interim ordinance approved Saturday — which is in effect for six months — creates a design review process through the ADB for certain projects zoned general commercial as part of the Highway 99 subarea plan. Under the ordinance, proposed projects in the CG zone with buildings taller than 35 feet would be required to go through the same design review process as exists for projects in Edmonds’ downtown business zones.

The council also agreed Saturday– by a 4-2 vote — to approve an amendment proposed by Councilmember Dave Teitzel that revisited the issue of requiring building stepbacks. The amendment requires that the portion of buildings above 25 feet tall step back no less than 10 feet from the required setback adjacent to — or directly across the street from — a single-family residential zone. Buildings more than 55 feet in height would be required to step back no less than 20 feet. The project developer could ask the ADB to waive the stepbacks if the applicant believed they weren’t necessary.

Planning and Development Director Susan McLaughlin noted that under the interim ordinance, the requirement for a design review process would apply regardless of whether a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) determination has been made for the project. (The State Environmental Policy Act process identifies and analyzes environmental impacts associated with governmental decisions.)

The interim ordinance approved Saturday outlines a two-step process, First, proposed projects taller than 35 feet will go before the ADB for a hearing so that the applicant can provide preliminary information about the project. This would include elements such as massing, scale, materials, setbacks and greenspace on site. After that first hearing, the applicant has the ability to redesign the project, in accordance with the comments both from the community and the ADB, McLaughlin said.

The applicant will return for a second ADB meeting, where it’s anticipated a decision will be made, although it could take longer. “No building permits could be issued until they successfully pass the ADB process,” McLaughlin said.  Requiring design review in the CG zone will allow for “more publicly facing design discretion and a public process,” she adeed.

Before approving Teitzel’s amendment, the council had a lengthy discussion about whether including the language regarding stepbacks was needed.

Teitzel argued that the amendment “provides the flexiblity for a developer if he or she feels strongly that stepbacks are not required to make that case and the ADB then would have the discretion” whether to waive the requirement. Without the amendment, he said, the decision would rest in the hands of city staff, putting the burden on citizens to make the case stepbacks should be required. Councilmember Will Chen agreed with Teitzel that it’s important to “put the burden of proof on developers.”

Councilmember Diane Buckshnis said she worried that the amendment would put ” too much pressure” on the all-volunteer ADB to make such decisions.

The amendment passed 4-2, with Neil Tibbott and Council President Vivian Olson voting no.

After approving the new interim ordinance, the council then voted to repeal the earlier interim ordinance, regarding stepbacks. That passed 5-1 with Buckshnis voting no.

In other business, the council also approved a number of additional amendments to the 2023 budget, which we will summarize in a separate story.

— By Teresa Wippel




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