Change of Mind, Change of Heart (part one)

When our home was for sale last fall, one evening we found a note taped to our door: “I have questions about your house,” with a name and phone number. Thinking it a potential sale, I called her the next morning. It turned out she only had one question: How did we get the house built? When I told her that whoever owned the property in 1997 had applied for a zoning variance, back before the City was incorporated and before the politicologists rose to power, she was audibly disheartened.

She had bought a property, she told me, in 2004. A quadruple lot of lakefront, 180 feet of shoreline on a wide two-plus acres. It was near the peak of the market and she had paid a mint–the price she told me was staggering: 1.4 million dollars for a two-room cabin. She wanted to build her dream home, and on the advice of her builder and architect tore the cabin down immediately in order to begin feasibility studies and architectural planning.

The DPD inspectors, the same who directed the Mitigation Plan on my own property, were difficult right away. They demanded a 200 foot setback from the lake, to comply with current Critical Area ordinance, and pointed out the soggy ground near the street. They called it a wetland and directed that any home must be 200 feet from that also; but with the dimensions of the lot, there was no way to be 200 feet from BOTH the lake and the soggy ground. This impasse over wetland vs. street runoff had been going on eight years.

The woman on the phone was notably angry and really wanted to talk, especially after I echoed her frustrations with the City’s

A new day dawns over A Thistle in My Sensitive Area

A new day dawns over A Thistle in My Sensitive Area

political ecologists. She hired each of the firms that perform the City’s Peer Review, and each came back with ‘Runoff from the street.’ This was in conflict with the City’s Best Available Science, and the private wetland studies were rejected. Using the ‘Reasonable Use’ mediation available in the Critical Area ordinance, she met with the City over several years in an effort to gain an exception or allowance; she even offered to build, as developers of large tracts in Sammamish are allowed, a man-made substitute wetland elsewhere. The City refused to change its position. With her resources exhausted and discussions breaking down, the chief politicologist told her: ‘if you so much as put a picnic table out or pitch a tent, make sure it’s gone by sundown. The new version of Critical Area Ordinance goes into effect next week.’ My phone friend got her builder on the phone right then and told him: ‘the ordinance changes next week. I want 80% of the lot cleared before then.’ In a fit of anger she clear-cut her lot, just to spite the City (though she was able to sell the timber). Even though the lot is unbuildable and unsellable, she cannot get a property tax assessment below $300,000 for ‘recreational value,’ despite the prohibition of so much as a picnic table or a tent. Her muddy, clear-cut lot is less than a mile down the street, and standing from the road you get a sweeping view of the lake, and the two 5,000-plus square foot homes looming on either side of the field of mud.

The first change of mind was to mentally move back in, then take a shower to wash that crap house off of me

The first change of mind was to mentally move back in, then take a shower to wash that crap house off of me

Her story burned in my ear as I stood on the sagging roof of the house we wanted to buy: it looked like the walls bowed out each time I stepped and I wondered if the structure would hold the weight of a new roof. Inside, the floor was oddly bouncy, and the crawl space confirmed it; the house was built of virtually nothing, and the foundation was almost nonexistent. To fix it would be to start from scratch, and since it was 100 feet from the lake and 100 feet from the road, I knew no permit would be issued. We rescinded our offer, and were glad to have avoided a parallel scenario to my neighbor on the phone.

At the same time, we had a few people interested in our own home, but who were made shy by the disclosures we had made about Sensitive Area title restriction, Mitigation Plans, City ordinances. Giving the ordinance a close read, really for the first time (there was no searchable database of municipal ordinances when we bought the home, just two years prior), I realized that the Critical Area ordinance only applies to the “original applicant for development;” Mitigation doesn’t ‘run with the land,’ it only applied to ME. The Critical Area Designation, which comes in the form of a title restriction, DOES run with the land. But when we pulled a copy of the title, it wasn’t there. I filled out the form and gave it to the City, but the restriction was not on our property title.

I called the bank where the $5,000 Survival Bond for the Mitigation Plantings is being held. I signed and had it notarized; had the City ever signed and notarized their portion? They had not. At that moment I realized: I have voluntarily dedicated these funds. This was a single-party action.

I went through my construction documents. Plans, contracts, inspections, receipts, a sheaf of paper several hundred pages

My Sensitive Area...much less sensitive than previously believed.

My Sensitive Area…much less sensitive than previously believed.

thick. I found it, the thing I’d been looking for. In my hand was the original application for the building permit: signed by my builder, in the name of my builder’s company, dated ONE DAY before I bought the property, feasibility, architectural plans, and permits…from my builder. The Critical Areas Ordinance, the Mitigation Plan, the Survival Bond: all these things apply specifically, statutorily, to the Original Applicant for Development…and that isn’t ME. I have been looking over my shoulder, gardening in fear and frustration for two years, imagining inspectors behind trees, and only tilting at windmills. The idea took my breath away. Maybe my Sensitive Area just toughened up a bit.

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16 Responses to Change of Mind, Change of Heart (part one)

  1. James Golden says:

    Reading this makes me so angry I’m about to burst. And I thought the NYC Department of Buildings was difficult and unreasonable. Can’t hold a candle to your “town.”

    • calvincaley says:

      Our state’s Growth Management Act, and its implementation on State, County, and Municipal levels, has NEVER won in court since its codification in 1998. It is unfortunate that she did not sue right away–before she had exhausted her resources–if she had, her story would likely have been a lot different. She (and I) acted on the belief that right and reason should dictate enforcement. That simply is not the case here in the Northwest. There are better ways to achieve the intent of these regulations, which over the years I have attempted to promote; and in whatever the final analysis is, the intent of the law should overrule the letter. Private property ownership is not a right afforded by government, but rather government is supported by private property ownership. I could go insane over how this has turned out, but I have followed the intent of law, and loved and protected my land, but still gained use and beauty from it. I have also been true to me, and get to shave a man whose integrity is intact (me, of course). I can only bet that NYC is a warren of entrenched bureaucracy, leavened with a bit of old-school cronyism. I might prefer straight bureaucracy…depending on how much a case of liquor costs, for when that one inspector comes around.

  2. Chad B says:

    Although I’d be frustrated as hell to realize that all your struggles may have been unnecessary, it sounds like good news for you. Go out and plant a Japanese maple in that sensitive area!

    • calvincaley says:

      There is plenty of pent-up demand for plants which are not cedars, salal, or sword fern. What form that will take is yet unknown–other than it won’t be TROPICALISSIMO with upside down exclamation points and such. I’ll admit to a bit of frustration, but also some letdown: up until I spoke with my neighbor, I kind of wanted a showdown and even thought I might ‘win.’ All of which is at least in part why this is the Year I Changed My Mind.

  3. Deirdre says:

    Wow! You must be torn between wanting to pop open the bubbly to celebrate, and drowning your sorrows in the strong stuff in frustration over all the hassle that turns out to have been completely unnecessary.
    I’ve got a couple of Japanese Maples you can have. Of course, the fact that the city has no grounds to hassle you doesn’t mean it won’t continue to do so.

    • calvincaley says:

      One of the terrible facets of our State’s legislative (including County and Municipal) process is the ability of lawmakers to make administrative (as in, absent voter review) changes every two years to previously codified law. In general and from experience, these administrative reviews, renewals, and changes tend only to make for more stringent regulation, and also to remove exemptions and ‘grandfathering.’ So yes, it is entirely possible that my clearing could see the politicologists back at some point. Still, I have revered ‘nature,’ and maintained the clearing as a part of the native forest (such as it is, in its half-mature second-growth state). From here, the site disturbance portion of the ordinance should prevail. I have a couple more parts to the mind changing–definitely more change coming up.

  4. calvincaley says:

    Deirdre! Don’t make me get ahead of myself!

  5. Seriously?!!! I need to hear more about this turn of events, possible over a nice rose’. 🙂

    • calvincaley says:

      Ok. Enough with the big talk…WHEN?

      • Deirdre says:

        Are you going to the Flower and Garden Show? I’ll be volunteering in the Dunn Garden booth Friday evening.

      • calvincaley says:

        I don’t think we will be as our weekend is shaping up to be quite busy–I miss the show, we haven’t been in a few years. I am a big fan of the Dunn Gardens, by the way–we used to live quite close by and toured a number of times. Be sure to check in and tell me how the show is this year!

  6. Pingback: Change of Mind, Change of Heart (part two) | A Thistle in My Sensitive Area

  7. Pingback: Lessons Were Learned, and…HEY! Wait a minute! | A Thistle in My Sensitive Area

  8. Pingback: Something is Still Sensitive Here. Maybe it is just me. | A Thistle in My Sensitive Area

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