‘green,’ or Green? the epilogue

‘I’m here for the Planning Commission meeting.’

I’d like to tell you that as I set my motorcycle-booted foot across the threshold of the City Hall meeting room last March, ‘Bad to the Bone’ began to play out of nowhere.  I wish I could say that I dropped my cheap Mexican cigar into some namby-pamby City supernumerary’s nonfat latte, brushed some invisible lint from his polypropylene lapel and said, ‘What’rya gonna do about it?’ I wish, I wish…but if wishes were fishes then, I dunno, I guess it would smell funny under my pillow or something.

Actually, I was wearing Merrill mocs and cheap Mexican cigars seem like they might be gross.  Really,  I just helped myself to a decentish cup of taxpayer-funded coffee, grabbed a couple subsidized shortbread cookies, and quietly took a seat to learn how property restriction law is crafted. 

The assistant city biologist who gave the Powerpoint presentation was the same who was

Hmm…I wonder if there are any politicologists in this book?

on my property for final inspection.  The slides were boilerplate, his speech bland and crisply bureaucratic, and I glanced around the room at a few fellows in dirty Carhartts, some older couples with rolls of plans on their shared marital lap, a couple small groups with matching logoed shirts, and several people that looked like me, tired suburban folk spending an afterwork evening at City Hall.  Just people, concerned citizens–not rebels or loud activists–and because I live where I live, nobody looking like they were just getting out of the rain for some free cookies, either.

I could tell the story in 15,000 words or give it the Reader’s Digest treatment.  A lot of information was passed and much of it remarkably disheartening.  The City’s Critical Development Ordinace(CDO) is a follow from State Growth Management law, designed to ‘protect the environment.’  The City pursues Best Available Science (BAS), which is then Peer Reviewed for soundness, to be certain that City ordinance is fact-based.  The Draft Ordinance is then opened for Public Comment.  The finished, Approved Draft Ordinace is then administratively (not voter) approved.  It is law. 

‘Do ye not disturbe us! We are in pursuit of the botanye and the biologye forthewithe!’

Sounds good, yes?  A tidy, science-based democratic process, open to all.  Well…not really.   See, the politicologist said something that caught my ear.  Maybe a mistake, maybe an immaterial syntactical point.  But it made me sit up and listen…and it made me do a little research.  He said, ‘The City pursues Best Available Science which supports the City’s objective.’  Subtle, but a slight amount of information review revealed that the Growth Management Act does not require complete scientific support; only the support of selective science.  The City hires a data aggregator to collect only the science the City wants.  All other science can be ignored.  This is not science.  It is a conclusion in search of a theory and hypothesis, and that is the opposite of science.  But wait, you say.  Isn’t this ‘science’ Peer Reviewed?   Well, yes.  In fact, the City has received a number of complaints from various permit applicants, because the City’s head biologist gives the Peer Review to…a firm the head biologist used to work for…where the Peer Review is conducted by….the City’s head biologist’s replacement…whom the City’s head biologist…recruited, hired, and trained.  Well, I guess all that is fine, as long as there is no potential for conflict of interest.

During the Public Comment period, one of the Carhartt gentlemen asked for greater guidance on how to create replacement wetlands.  Ouch.  I can’t plant azaleas, but developers can replace wetlands.  Somebody asked, What prevents a developer from filling in a replacement wetland, since man-made wetlands are not regulated by CDO? The politicologist replied, ‘We believe that contractors and developers are heavily enough incentivized to continue doing business in our city to not do that.’ Umm, yeah.  Apparently the city has never been stiffed by a contractor who then reincorporated under a new name with his spouse as president of the ‘new’ company.  If one hasn’t done it yet, it is only because they haven’t thought of it.

Matching outfit people, who turned out to be environmental protection groups from cities

“I have given extensive review to your studies, and all seems to be in order…at least, relative to all other studies of alchemy and phrenology.”

thirty and seventy-five miles away, respectively, got up to say a few words; a conservative-looking guy in a suit attempted to introduce a motion to have every individual tree in the City of Sammamish declared an environmentally sensitive area unto itself; and an older man told of how he dug out a part of his bottomland a few decades ago to collect water for his horses, but because he couldn’t prove he did so the City won’t let him fill in what is now a hazardous, mosquito-ridden swampy pond that overflows onto the

school property that is now next door.  Listening to the tremendous frustration of my fellow citizens, it began to dawn on me: the system is gamed, and it is well gamed away from ME.  Want to appeal a City decision? You may have ‘science,’ but you don’t have peer review.  No applicable science for your situation? We’ll force you to hire an expert, then we have statutory authority to create situational policy, based on RCW number point subhead lettter whatever.  Oh, you’re a developer?  Pay extra, cut a deal.  That’s a-ok.

A man stood up and said, ‘I don’t understand why I can’t build a detached garage when I don’t have any of these Critical Development areas.  The city has denied my permit three times based on something called a “site disturbance clause.” ‘  Another couple got up as well:  ‘We have that too, ours is because of ivy.’  The first man said, ‘Blackberry.’ The politicologist replied, “We are working on that.  When vegetative site disturbance exceeds 70% of an affected area, no action can be taken and  a permit cannot be issued even when it is nuisance vegetation like ivy or blackberry.” 

Ivy and blackberry are more than nuisance vegetation: they are listed by State, County, and City as noxious weeds, harmful invasive species that kill forests, displace native vegetation, create green deserts, and harbor unwanted and invasive animals…but apparently, if you have too much of them, you can’t get a vegetation removal permit or development permit.  Too many noxious weeds, essentially, can also equal too sensitive, at least according to Best Available Science.  Stupid

In the Site Disturbance Clause, then,  I have the sole remaining occupant in my opened and otherwise empty Pandora’s Box of Property Restrictions, a lonely and tiny orphan that shall be known as the Mitigation Loophole, or alternatively, the Bryophyte Gambit.  You see, while planting to ‘Mitigate’ my property, I have also transplanted and cultivated native forest mosses…mosses that now cover about 90% of my oh-so-sensitive soil.  Fighting the irrational, arbitrary, and science-bereft regulations that restrict my property would (perhaps will) be expensive, frustrating, an attempt to unravel a tangle of tautology…but now that my site is almost fully “mossed,” it does not seem that it can be disturbed, either.  Within a segment of State and local law that exists in a slim shadow ground between environmental concern, the public good, political expedience, and paternalism, self-serving ethics, and the manipulation of science, if the Bryophyte Gambit is what I’ve got, then I’ll take what I can get.

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25 Responses to ‘green,’ or Green? the epilogue

  1. Deirdre in Seattle says:

    I’m sure they mean well, but they’re nuts!!! You can’t remove blackberries and ivy???? You can’t right a former wrong (pond)?

  2. What a bunch of puffed up hufflepumphy BS…

  3. calvincaley says:

    Nuts is kind. This was difficult to write, partly because it almost feels like a repressed memory, and also because it is difficult to distill so very much information into a relatively compact piece of writing. This is by far the longest single post I have written, and it could easily be three or five times longer. But I assure you that I do not exaggerate or misrepresent any of this information. Really, it is much worse and much more complex than I have shown. I understand that no city has the budget to employ their own scientists or the legal personnel to craft meaningful development ordinances that both serve ‘nature’ and the population in general. But these ordinances are so ridiculous, baseless, and shot full of holes and loopholes that it just makes me furious. I am literally the ONLY individual in my city under these types of restrictions, yet the ordinances offer plenty of allowance for the development of large to very large housing tracts, and exempt the City itself. It is so expensive and so frustrating. I love “nature,” and perhaps the worst part of all of this is knowing that I have, I am, and I will care for my land (and its plants and creatures) in a way that the Mitigation Planner could not, yet doing what I am doing could cost me so very much in the future because I am outside the LETTER of these ordinances.

    I so desperately wanted to take those people aside and say, you know, removing ivy and blackberry, or filling in a pond that is hazardous to schoolchildren, is the kind of thing you just do and then apologize for later. The right thing is right, whether you have a city-issued permit or not. But I was trying to keep a low profile.

  4. Chad B says:

    Calvin, after reading your post I was going to make a specific comment but then I read your follow-up comment and saw that you were already thinking what I was going to say: sometimes it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

    • calvincaley says:

      Thank you so much for coming by! It’s a good policy, one I followed when some sensitive trees fell on my house after an ice storm last winter. I felt so sorry for those people–the man has to pump water from his pond each winter when it overflows to the school, to control damage to the school property and for the safety of the kids. I’d have a backhoe out there about 15 minutes ago.

  5. rainyleaf says:

    Really good post, although unbelievable. Is this really where we live? Silly Sammamish….someone should give them a good talking to and put them in the corner to watch the Polystichum grow. I’m sorry you’ve had to immerse yourself in this painful process. Keep those mosses growing!

    • calvincaley says:

      Thank you, Elaine. I’d like to think that the process of ‘Mitigation’ is ultimately about the INTENT of the law: The native plants. I have almost three times as many Native plants as in the original Plan, and indicators of site disturbance are subsiding–weeds, bracken, cleavers and sandwort. Unfortunately, the arbitrary and capricious nature of these regulations cause me concern, as I am going this alone and not with the help of a City-approved “Mitigation Planner,” as spelled out in the LETTER of the law. Personally, I think Polystichum is too good for them. I wish a pox of Pteridiim aquilenum upon them…maybe a plague of Aplodontia rufia as well.

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  8. Deirdre says:

    I’d rather adhere to the spirit of the law than the letter of the law. I too live adjacent to a “wetland”. It’s really just a seasonal detention pond put in about fifteen years ago. Fortunately, this “wetland” was created eighty years after my house was built, and there is a grandfather clause for previously landscaped areas. I had the eight foot tall Himalayan blackberries removed before I knew any better, and have been planting. I have been putting in some natives, but I’m careful not to put in only natives lest some bureaucrat decide it’s “native habitat” and limit what I can do to it.

    • calvincaley says:

      You and me both. On this side of the lake, man-made wetlands are supposedly not subject to Critical Area ordinance, but I think you are wise not to place any trust in this type of exemption. Things can change, and quickly–and in Seattle you wouldn’t likely receive any notice. Plant some Oregon Pitcher Plant for me!

      • Deirdre says:

        Part of my backyard is an Environmentally Critical (or was it sensitive) Area. I can plant, but I’m not allowed to do any earth moving. I proposed a berm and swale to protect the house from possible flooding. The city official said it was a good idea, but no.

      • calvincaley says:

        So somebody created a stormwater retention pond and called it ‘Critical?’ That is strange and super duper sucks. I am pretty sure if it were me, I’d be building the berm you mentioned, quietly and a few bags of soil at a time. I’d probably start with two or three courses of sandbags, too, and bury them under my secret berm. Any way you could do this where the area in question encroaches on your property? I’d probably also make some nice ‘beachy’ looking margins on the pond of cobble rock and such, and maybe plant masses of bog iris and sedges, making sure they were nice and exotic non-native types, definitely put in a dozen and a half Oregon Pitcher plants for some natural insect control. You know, make it look natural, but provide the protections you want without creating an actual Native ecosystem that you or somebody else might get stuck with forevermore. Sorry for you on this one, that’s for sure. But when it comes to the security of your property and the ensurance of its usefulness, I would definitely take the ‘do something and apologize for it later,’ approach.

  9. Deirdre says:

    We intend to put up a stone retaining wall(s) and raise the level of the part of the backyard we can do things to. Since the house was built in 1916, a Jeykllesque terraced wall would be appropriate.

    Calling this a wetland probably allowed the city to fill in and develop some real wetland elsewhere.

    • calvincaley says:

      Sounds about right. Without question these types of restrictions can be self-serving and ripe for abuse. They also continually lose in court, but that is small comfort and not a desirable direction. I am not a huge consumer of garden history but I know the name and have seen photos of the Water Garden at Vann, which I like very much. Does anyone maintain the retention ponds, or visit them regularly in any official capacity? Anyone ever come onto your property without your permission? Make sure you keep a record of any such thing, especially if you ever have to mow or provide maintenance, or it damages or devalues your property.

  10. Deirdre says:

    Our property is fenced in. The city built the fence. We keep the gate padlocked so people wouldn’t let out the dogs or chickens. The city representative we invited here frowned when I mentioned the padlock was ours, but seemed to understand about the animals. I mow regularly to keep the blackberries from coming back from scraps of root left in the ground. I’m planting trees, mostly western red cedar, but other things as well. Some day I hope to stop mowing. The trees will grow enough to cast some shade, and I’ll be able to plant a semi-wild shade garden. There’s a public walkway through the city’s area. It used to be a street. The city maintains the area near the walkway.

    • calvincaley says:

      I’d keep them locked out for sure. At the very edge of my wetland there is the tail of an old roadcut. During construction, the city very graciously allowed one vehicle to park there, as space is tight on my property (because of the house being so close to the street and you know, the sensitiveness). Upon completion, the inspectors made certain to tell me that the roadcut was now off limits–no using it for overflow parking, or anything else. Once a month ever since, the water department parks a dual-axle truck on it and tromps through the plants I have put in on the roadcut to close it off so that they can conduct water flow and quality checks at the drainage weir from the wetland, under the road, to the lake. Very irksome, because the last I heard trespassing on private property was illegal.

      Have you ever tried any of the vinegar concentrates that are on the market for blackberry control? They are organic and break down in the soil, I tried one a few years ago at my office and it got rid of the blackberries and horsetail stat. I love red cedar but I am not a huge fan of it as a garden tree because it wants to be so huge. Yellow cedar is my go-to, though there are a couple places I’d like to make ‘green wall’ out by the street and I wish I could try some of the newer cultivars of red cedar that have a gold and green variegated frond.

      The city told me, at the same time as they told me I couldn’t park where they want to park, that they’d ‘prefer I not get a dog, or other animals.’ Apparently they relieve themselves outdoors. Unlike, say, a coyote or a bear.

  11. Deirdre says:

    The “sensitive’ part of my yard floods every so often. I needed something that would survive occasional flooding and our bone dry summers (I’m watering the first couple of summers, but that’s it). The western red cedar fit the bill. Plus, I want tall trees to screen what’s behind me. One of the issues in living in the city is unattractive views, but we couldn’t resist a craftsman bungalow with all the woodwork intact, and not painted white in the twenties, on a half acre.

    I’m not familiar with the yellow cedar. I’ll look it up.

    • calvincaley says:

      Yellow cedar is variously called Alaska cedar, Nootka cedar, Nootka false cypress. It is a native, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis. I like it because it will take wet feet and the local modified Mediterranean when established. They grow quickly, but narrow, and there are some fastigiate forms available. Even when they get 25-40 feet high they don’t overwhelm a garden space, and leave lots of room for fun stuff underneath because without the giant canopy you don’t get the ‘desert shade’ of a lot of our full-size conifers. I like them with the obvious companions, Japanese maples, azaleas, Mondo grass and such, but they are happy to stand behind perennials, too. I’ll never understand why people paint moldings that were originally stained. Wood will always be pretty.

      • Deirdre says:

        Those names I recognize.

        Fashion changes. The twenties and thirties were about a lighter and more feminine decor. Maybe they figured out who chose the furniture.

  12. Deirdre says:

    I think I will try the vinegar this August when the only green is the weeds.

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