Courts rather than council to rule on Black Diamond development
There's been a dramatic changing of the guard in Black Diamond City Hall, but a popular effort to scale back developer YarrowBay's urban villages may depend more on the courts than on the City Council.
Seattle Times staff reporter
There's no doubt now that someone new is in charge in Black Diamond.
The old City Council majority, ousted in a landslide vote over its approval of two high-density urban villages, held an unheard-of special meeting two days after Christmas to make one more important decision before leaving office. The council authorized the state's first "community facilities district" to raise $21 million for road, park, sewer and stormwater projects in one of the planned communities.
Nine days later, the new council met for the first time and voted unanimously to undo that decision.
But for all the symbolism of the council's about-face, it remains unclear whether the changing of the guard will reverse the old council's commitment to turn the sleepy exurban town into a bustling city with stores, restaurants, offices, parks, schools and thousands of new residents.
The new City Council has not attempted to slow the plan for 6,050 homes and 1 million square feet of commercial space in YarrowBay's The Villages and Lawson Hills projects.
If the developments are to be scaled back in size, it will most likely be the result of lawsuits rather than council action. Toward Responsible Development, a citizens group, is challenging the city's approvals of the projects in several lawsuits.
"That's for the courts to decide. We're in no position as a council to try to rescind that," Councilman Craig Goodwin said of the high residential densities approved by the old council.
Goodwin, who was a minority voice on the old council and is now the only member with more than a month's experience, said the vote to create a community facilities district "was pushed down everybody's throat by the lame-duck council."
The new council's reversal of the action doesn't mean it won't ultimately make the same decision, Goodwin said. It simply meant: "OK, let's get the facts and do our due diligence, since we're the council that has to implement this," he said.
A special committee of council members, city staff and YarrowBay representatives is being set up to study and discuss the concept.
A community facilities district, if authorized by the council, would assess properties in the urban villages and sell bonds to fund public improvements.
The funding district would shift some infrastructure costs from the developer to the builders or homeowners who later buy the land. Homeowners could pay up to $998 a year in assessment costs for 28 years, consultant Henderson, Young & Co. told the city.
YarrowBay CEO Brian Ross said the council's flip-flop was a disappointment but won't slow the start of the planned communities. It will, however, "significantly delay" public improvements that would have been accelerated by the new funding mechanism, he said. YarrowBay had pledged to build a fire station years sooner than originally planned if the city approved the community facilities district.
City officials will process the developer's initial plans "until we're told otherwise by legal action," said Community Development Director Steve Pilcher.
"We could be ready to go as soon as the summer. Whether we proceed or not, we frankly haven't decided yet," Ross said.
YarrowBay and its unidentified partners "feel very strong and feel very good about the local economy," Ross said, but he acknowledged that legal challenges remain.
The company won the last round, when the state Court of Appeals reversed a Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board ruling that the city didn't follow proper procedures when it passed ordinances greenlighting the urban villages. Foes of the projects last month asked the state Supreme Court to review the appellate decision.
If YarrowBay were to start construction before key legal issues are resolved, it would run the risk of being ordered by a court to tear down what it built, said Dave Bricklin, attorney for Toward Responsible Development.
So, might the two sides negotiate a settlement and avoid years more of legal wrangling?
"We broached that with them a long time ago," Bricklin said. "We told them we're not saying that the property can't be developed. It's about the pace and style and whether it fits in with the existing town or not. We're willing to talk. We have not heard from them."
Ross said YarrowBay at some point must decide "how we feel about the merits of our case," and could negotiate with opponents.
"We just won't let ourselves get locked up in the legal process," Ross said. "We're just not going to let ourselves do that. We'd much rather talk to the opposition and figure out if they have any specific issues we can address. We're always open and ready to talk to folks."
So far, though, the adversaries haven't begun settlement talks.
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or email@example.com