Olympia Planning Commission Jumps the Shark

The February 6, 2012 Regular Planning Commission Meeting featured a discussion on the Shoreline Modification (docks, moorages, dredging, etc) Chapter of the SMP and a brief presentation of heights and views. I’ll discuss both in turn after I describe what I considered was the most mind-boggling occurrence—the discussion of the schedule for the OPC’s completion of the SMP.

In an effort to complete OPC review prior to the termination of the commission terms on March 31, 2012 (through which there will be a turnover of at least three commissioners who did not re-apply), the commission leadership proposed eight additional meetings for February and March. There are certainly reasons to undertake that kind of schedule, but as I said last night, commissioner turnover needs to be weighed against the extreme likelihood of absences due to previous commitments and the likelihood of falling short of the March 31, deadline despite our best efforts. Some commissioners argued that the Council is champing at the bit to get the SMP. While I imagine it’s possible that some councilmembers have said so privately, the most recent staff report to Council left no official pronouncement and without that, I’d call this concern irrelevant speculation. Commissioners stressed the need of additional staff time in order to meet the demanding schedule, but the response was staff reports from a Monday meeting cannot be prepared by a following Wednesday meeting even in the best of times. Staff resources are also currently tied up with drafting the Comprehensive Plan Update, leaving them less time than usual. We’ve also left most of the extremely controversial issues—heights and views, and the Parking Lot—to the end. As one commissioner astutely pointed out, the Parking Lot, a group of issues that were deemed too confusing, too consequential, too dependent on other decisions, and simply those issues we didn’t to take on when they came up, is still out there and it will take loads of time to sort through. Given our inability to meet any deadlines at all up to this point it simply beggars belief that we would be able to do so now with these shortcomings. Finally, and most importantly, if we cannot meet this schedule by even one meeting because there aren’t enough Mondays and Wednesdays in March, we’ll have at least three new commissioners who will be responsible for voting on the entire package without much of a clue about what they are voting on. Ironically, while we collectively convinced ourselves of the need to hurry, except for the personal desire that the departing commissioners had to complete this during their terms, I didn’t hear another argument in favor of an expedited schedule. As we left it last night, if we cannot complete the SMP on this new timeframe, we’ll defeat the purpose of a condensed schedule anyway and will waste up to 24 hours (assuming that meetings do not exceed three hours) of meeting time and staff hours. Our collective response was: “we should try.” Thus, Fonzie sailed over the shark.

Ironically, the alternative proposal which stretched out the SMP meetings to July was actually realistic and I thought desirable. Not only did it allow plenty of time for deliberating the controversial issues, it also allowed much more time for new commissioner learning curves. Indeed, it would have taken the SMP several months but at least it took into account our track record and the pile of work on the commission desk which I believe are the only relevant data points in the analysis.

Next, the commission jumped into the Shoreline Modification chapter where one commissioner illustrated perfectly the problem with this SMP deliberation. The issue of docks on waterfront residential properties is contentious because it congeals within itself collective and individual rights. Thanks to the commissioner who brought it up for discussion, the commission actually had an illuminated discussion on what it means to restrict the permitting of single family docks, what the proliferation of docks means for marine and freshwater ecology, and what options the commission has in dealing with these issues. Naturally, we shelved the issue for subsequent consideration.

This moment of our deliberation reminded me of one of my previous comments to the commission more than a year ago: I suggested the commission formulate a list of broad issues just like the use of docks that is well within our discretion and our competency. I suggested that we discuss and vote on these issues not as SMP legal or ecological experts, but as community members on a citizen advisory committee. I believe that had we done this, we would have had perhaps up to a hundred issues (but I bet less) of which some would have taken some time to digest. We could have offered minority reports where we disagreed. Finally, we could have relied on staff to embed those decisions into the draft, reviewed that draft on our own time, and asked questions on our areas of concern. This would have taken time, but I doubt it would have taken nearly as much time as it did. Most importantly, the OPC would have given the City Council a draft program that would be much more complete and much more reflective of the community’s desire than what they’re going to receive from the OPC. Instead, we have spent the last 12 months doing glorified copy editing not because we decided that it the best thing to do, but because as a group, we didn’t know what else to do but turn the pages of the SMP draft one at a time with the chair reading off section numbers and asking for comments.

Finally, last night the commission took in a presentation of sight lines mentioned in the previous post. There were ominous comments at the conclusion of that discussion which led me to believe we have under-scheduled (perhaps severely) the time that will be necessary to complete our discussion of heights and views. Please review the second paragraph of this post.

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