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’spolitical 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. 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 pagesthick. 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.