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
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.
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
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.