By Erica C. Barnett
A public hearing to consider an amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan that would allow transportation impact fees on new development was bumped by more than two hours to make room for public comment on a resolution from outgoing councilmember Kshama Sawant demanding “an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, an end to U.S. funding for the Israeli military, the safe release of all hostages, the restoration of humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.”
After hours of public comment from Sawant’s supporters that included chants of “from the river to the sea,” the resolution failed for lack of a second, prompting a chorus of denunciations from the crowd and a brief recess to clear council chambers.
By the time the council returned about 10 minutes later, it was past 4 pm and tensions were high. Lisa Herbold, who sponsored the comprehensive plan proposal along with Alex Pedersen, teed up a presentation on the amendment by accusing her council colleagues of misrepresenting her legislation and confusing the public by raising questions about the fees themselves.
“I’m really frustrated that … when I ask questions, I’m being treated as if it is unreasonable. These questions are coming from community.”—Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda
Transportation impact fees are based on the number of units in a building, based on the premise the denser the development, the more of a negative “impact” it has on the city’s infrastructure, like roads and bridges—a assumption that conflicts the urbanist view that density is greener and more efficient than sprawl. The legislation Herbold and Pedersen are sponsoring would allow the council to adopt impact fees in the future, “identify deficiencies in the transportation system associated with new development,” and adopt a list of projects that could be funded through such fees.
“I can’t tell you how many emails we’ve received commenting on whether or not people want a transportation impact fee or oppose a transportation impact fee,” Herbold said. “There is no transportation impact the proposal before the council today. People have pointed to the questions about the potential transportation impact fee program as a reason to not support this amendment. … These are not questions for today.”
Councilmembers Dan Strauss and Teresa Mosqueda disputed this characterization, noting that while amending the comprehensive plan to allow impact fees might technically be “procedural,” the only reason to pass such an amendment is to move impact fees forward—a longtime goal for both Herbold and Pedersen, who are leaving at the end of the year and won’t get another chance.
Ordinarily, amendments to the comprehensive plan—the document that guides all planning and land-use decisions in the city—go through the land use committee, which Strauss chairs, but the council voted last month to bypass the normal committee process and push the amendment through before the end of the year—all very much over Strauss’ objections. “This is a big piece of legislation,” he said last month, on par with the tree protection ordinance and changes to the city’s maritime industrial zoning. “I believe it is important that we have the time to understand the policy.
“It really upsets me to hear people say that this impacts the cost of affordable housing. We have not set a fee. … And I just really think that we’re doing a big disservice to the public by continuing to suggest that we’re making those decisions today.”—Councilmember Lisa Herbold
“I’m really frustrated that … when I ask questions, I’m being treated as if it is unreasonable,” said Mosqueda, who submitted 20 questions about the proposal back in September and said she is still waiting on responses to most of them. “These questions are coming from community. These questions are coming from people who are very interested in [ensuring] that there’s no impediment to building housing. These questions and concerns are essential for us to address and should have been addressed in a committee setting, not in the middle of budget” season, a time when the council ordinarily does not consider major legislation.
“It really upsets me to hear people say that this impacts the cost of affordable housing,” Herbold retorted. “We have not set a fee. … And I just really think that we’re doing a big disservice to the public by continuing to suggest that we’re making those decisions today.”
According to a presentation by council staff in September, the fees could add millions of dollars to the cost to build new housing and “generate between $200 million – $760 million over 10 years.” The housing developers and attorneys who stuck around to testify against the legislation (their comments limited to one minute each because it was so late in the day) said impact fees could make some of their recent projects prohibitively expensive.
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“I feel like I’m in an alternate reality when I hear a council member saying that this is not a policy change, when the comprehensive plan is actually the city’s main policy-setting document,” said McCullough Hill attorney Jessica Clawson. “Make no mistake—you’re setting policy, and again, I have never seen the council rush to make such an important policy decision—ever.”
The council will take up the proposal again next week, and is expected to vote on the amendment on November 21. It will then be up to the next city council—including a group of newcomers that does not include a single outspoken proponent for density or renters—to take action on impact fees, and to decide how much to penalize developers for building new apartments in a city with an acute housing shortage.