OPC: Final SMP Soliloquy

This will be my final post on the Olympia Shoreline Master Program (SMP). I provide my concluding thoughts only because I think the topic deserves some closure after what I’ve written previously, not because I have any desire to say another word about it.

In order to allow the reader a real appreciation of the tension in this deliberation, one really must have a reasonably solid working knowledge of the Shoreline Management Act (SMA). I cannot do that justice here, (though you can start here if you’re interested) but I do feel it appropriate to make an attempt at the rude basics. At its essence the SMP is a zoning overlay from the average water mark to first 200 feet inland. The SMA requires that the city adopt regulations for protection the environment, ensuring commercial viability, and several other competing policies like providing public access. The shorelines are broken down into what are called reaches by various environmental designations which are segregated by geological and commercial similarity. Some of these reaches’ environmental designations in Olympia are called Urban Conservancy, and Urban Intensity, Urban Residential, and Natural.

About two years ago, the OPC starting looking and commenting on a draft plan that the Thurston Regional Planning Council produced in 2009. About 18 months ago, the city staff produced its own draft after a year or so of meetings with the SMP subcommittee of the OPC. Thus began the fun.

As you might imagine, 90% of the SMP is straightforward, but the other 10% was the kind of controversial that Olympia will be known for in a thousand years. Those controversial issues centered around the heights and setbacks of the reaches around the downtown area. Those heights and setbacks usually, but not necessarily turn on the reaches’ environmental designations. For example, the Urban Conservancy designation is more restrictive than Urban Intensity.

It took the better part of six months before the OPC developed a deliberation process that could handle all these floating issues meaningfully and timely (at least in theory). Part of this deliberation process included a reconsideration meeting which was a designated time for the OPC to reconsider (meaning vote a second time if enough commissioners want to) the environmental designations of these reaches when the full commission was present. As any Olympian can imagine, the most controversial reaches are in the Port Peninsula and the famous Isthmus properties.

The reconsideration meeting began on March 5, 2012, where several reaches were re-designated Urban Conservancy from Urban Intensity including those around northern Westbay and the Isthmus properties. The next meeting was Wednesday the 7th during which I made a brief appearance which terminated when I learned that we would consider the non-binding Restoration Plan. Instead of all 11 commissioners, only 7 were present. Not long after my departure, the commission continued the reconsideration of the reach that included the Moxlie/Indian Creek spillway into Budd Inlet. On a vote of 5-2, it became Urban Intensity.

After that vote, the two commissioners on the losing side (who are those favoring more restrictive zoning) left the meeting which resulted in the loss of a quorum of the OPC so that no further action could be taken. Obviously, therefore the conservationistas would live to fight another day. This was a perfect illustration of how the deliberation has gone and what it has become. (I fully support this quorum breaking tactic even though it is controversial. In another post, we’ll consider how appropriate it is to break quorums to stave off undesirable outcomes. I’ll try not to limit my illustrations to the U.S. Congress.)

It is also interesting to note that the OPC is not actually passing anything so these votes don’t actually mean that much. They are simply recommendations, not binding votes. Not to put too fine a point on that, Mayor Buxbaum visited the OPC meeting on Monday, March 12, 2012 (yes, the OPC meets twice a week now), and reiterated that the OPC must turn over the SMP to the council no later than March 31, 2012. He also said that the council wants to know each commissioner’s particular perspectives on the various issues in the SMP.

Thus, I leave the OPC’s SMP even though there are still several meetings left for the OPC. I don’t know that anything else needs to be said about it. We’ll take up the City Council’s and Department of Ecology’s SMP review soon.

And the OPC? It appears they are now staring down at the Comprehensive Plan as rigid factions, and I’m happy that, as a soon to be liberated OPC Alumnus, I won’t have to deal with scores of unproductive hours. I don’t necessarily think factions are inherently problematic but they do have the tendency to create problems if the group cannot figure out procedures for accomplishing their objectives while ensuring a fair hearing of all points of view. That starts with understanding the objectives. I have argued that the OPC needs to re-embrace its statutory role as a policy formulating body and leave the straight voting deliberation for quasi-judicial proceedings where the questions are fairly narrow and the options straightforward. The Comprehensive Plan review is a legislative action and can therefore consider broad and expansive questions. But this mode of deliberation won’t naturally happen because of calcified factionalism. The tendency will be retrenchment, but perhaps the April retreat can break down those hard and fast lines among the commissioners.

With the Comprehensive Plan review, I’ll personally be watching the OPC approach very carefully to determine whether we’ll see some change in which we can believe—a definition of objectives and procedures for attaining them—or more of the same—collective shoulder shrugging with the sentiment “let’s just see what the next staff report says.” I’ll let you know.

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