In a lengthy hearing that was long on emotion and short on facts, the Aberdeen City Council Wednesday night rejected an application to rezone about 74 acres atop Think of Me Hill to multi-family residential housing.
Close to 40 citizens turned out to hear the proceeding, which took up most of the three and half hour city council meeting.
In two votes, the council soundly rejected the recommendation for a rezone by Community Development Director Lisa Scott and the Planning Commission and spurned developer Ed Christensen’s plans. The land is now zoned for single family housing.
In hearing an application for a rezone, the council acts as a quasi-judicial body and is supposed to act impartially. Witnesses are sworn in.
Scott and Christensen, who calls his planned development Lakeview Terrace, again testified to the need in Aberdeen for apartments.
Lakeview Terrace by Aberdeen Landing LLC was first approved as a subdivision of single family homes by the city council in 2007. Financing problems and the December 2007 storms put the project on the shelf, Christensen has said. He was also fined by the state Department of Ecology for erosion and runoff issues. Citing an improving economy, Christensen revived the project and applied to change the zoning to multi-family residential because his research showed it was more economically viable.
Though City Attorney Eric Nelson warned witnesses to keep to five minutes and to facts, many strayed from both. Nelson became visibly and vocally frustrated as he urged emotional witnesses and council members to confine their testimony to facts and to speak specifically as to whether the application met the city’s criteria for rezoning.
Mayor Bill Simpson also admonished several witnesses and council members. No one from the public testified in favor.
Witness Gilbert Myers warned that construction could cause “mudslides (that) could bury people alive.” His wife Robbie Myers and Councilwoman Kathi Hoder worried the rezone would open the door for federal, low income housing.
Nelson sharply warned Hoder it is illegal to discriminate in housing. “Ms. Hoder, we may want to talk in executive session before you start discriminating against people,” Nelson said.
Hoder also accused Christensen of lying about whether the property is up for sale as was alleged by hill resident Ed Antich. “I don’t like to be lied to, sir,” she said.
Antich delivered a petition against the rezone bearing more than 100 signatures, and made several allegations about Christensen’s financial situation, which seemed to have no direct bearing on the merits of a rezone. Christensen said he was not the one who put the property up for sale, and no offers had been made in four years. It was unclear whether his total of 200 acres on the hill is also owned by others.
Very few objections or deliberations seemed to challenge the six rezone criteria as to whether it concerns: the public welfare and safety, the city’s comprehensive plan, it is appropriate for the city, whether the rezone is suitable and conforms, benefits the city as a whole and complies with the municipal code.
It was the issue of transportation and traffic that derailed the bid for multi-family rezone.
Christensen and Scott reiterated that an agreement made to widen Pioneer Boulevard to 24 feet with five foot sidewalks was still in place. Christensen is also willing to add streetlights and other amenities, he said.
Though a witness asked that Public Works Director Malcolm Bowie weigh in on questions about the road, he did not come forward, remaining seated in the back though he normally sits up front with other city officials. “Where were you tonight?” asked Nelson after the hearing. Scott also wondered why Bowie was silent.
In their deliberations, Councilmen Tim Alstrom and Denny Lawrence seized on conflicting testimony about whether apartment dwellers require more or fewer trips in cars and on public transportation. Christensen said apartment dwellers take fewer trips, while witness Michael Dickerson said they take as many.
Councilwoman Tawni Andrews, who voted for the rezone, cited the staff report’s finding of fact that the rezoning proposal accounts for that with “a 21 percent reduction in density” than that allowed for single family zoning.
Council President Peter Schave said he favored the rezone because he believes in an owner’s right to develop land as he sees fit. Alstrom said he believes in property rights, too, but thinks the bid to change the development to multi-family changed the circumstances.
Christensen, who testified that “no one will finance single family development these days,” left shortly after the vote and said he will have to think about whether he will appeal.
Before the hearing began, Nelson asked council members to disclose any contact with constituents or opinions they may have expressed about the rezone. Most council members reported they had heard and talked about the issue, and did not publicly detail those interactions. The issue is important because if any are discovered to have made up their minds ahead of time, it could be grounds for an appeal to the county Superior Court, city officials said.
Two votes were required to take action. In the first vote, the council refused to endorse the staff report and commission recommendation to approve the rezone and bring forward an ordinance. That vote was 7 to 3 against.
Public Works Chairwoman Margo Shortt voted for, as did City Council President Schave and the newly-elected Andrews. Voting no were Alstrom, Hoder, Lawrence, Jerry Mills, Doug Paling, Alice Phelps and Alan Richrod. Phelps, whose ward contains Think of Me Hill, seemed to play to the crowd against the rezone.
Jim Cook, who owns property on the hill and openly opposes the change, recused himself and left the third floor before the hearing started. Jeff Cook was absent and excused.
In the second vote, the majority of the members voted 8 to 2 to deny the rezone and asked that an ordinance to that effect be brought forward March 12. Shortt did not change her mind but changed her vote “so we can get out of here,” she said.
As he left the chambers, Nelson confirmed that Christensen has 21 days to appeal the land use decision before the county Superior Court. The three-week count starts on March 12, when Nelson will bring forward a resolution rather than an ordinance denying the rezone, he said.
At the close of the meeting, William Simpson, the mayor’s son, scolded council members for thwarting development that could bring in tax dollars and that would pay for a rebuild of Pioneer Boulevard the city cannot afford. “It’s a lot of ‘not in my backyard’,” he said. Simpson lost a bid to take Richrod’s seat earlier this year when his father tossed a coin to decide the seat following a tie vote of the council.