No one disputes that the East Bellevue Community Council is an unusual animal — the group is one of only two in the state that have...
No one disputes that the East Bellevue Community Council is an unusual animal — the group is one of only two in the state that have a right to veto developments in their neighborhood.
But then the descriptions diverge. To many city officials, the council is out of touch, obstructionist, old and ornery. To community council members, it’s a vital watchdog, protecting residents from bad projects in a city that they say does not always have the best interests of neighborhoods at heart.
The few thousand registered voters represented by the community council will decide Nov. 8 whether they want it to exist for another four years. Their answer will be a barometer of whether residents believe they are adequately represented by the larger Bellevue City Council. To the city, “we are a burr under the saddle,” said longtime community-council member Jim Keeffe. “It infuriates them that knowledgeable people can … put restrictions on their ability to run roughshod when it comes to development.”
City Councilwoman Claudia Balducci says the group hasn’t had many issues to tackle in recent years. But when decisions come up, she said, the community council does not side with the majority of the residents it represents. “I honestly don’t see the purpose of the organization anymore,” she said.
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The five-member community council was created in 1969, after a new state law designed to give neighborhoods some power after being annexed by cities. No more than a handful of councils with veto power ever existed, and now only two — East Bellevue and Houghton in Kirkland — remain.
The council’s voters must approve its existence every four years. If they vote no, the council will never come back. For East Bellevue, voter approval was routine until the past several years. (The Houghton Community Council is also up for renewal next month, but is expected to win approval by a wide margin.)
Four years ago, the East Bellevue council vetoed a proposed expansion of the Lake Hills Shopping Center, which was losing tenants and becoming an eyesore, according to many residents. Some city officials and residents were furious and lobbied the neighborhood to quash the council, as well as the adjacent Sammamish Community Council, which they said was also out of touch.
East Bellevue Community Council
The council represents about 10,000 people over about 3 square miles of mostly residential neighborhoods. It meets at 6:30 p.m. the first Tuesday of every month at the Lake Hills Community Clubhouse, 15230 Lake Hills Blvd. The council can veto development projects and land-use changes that it deems inappropriate for the neighborhood. For example, the group would have veto power over the city’s proposed changes to the critical-areas ordinances, but only for the East Bellevue area. Council members say they have no plans to oppose the ordinances.
The campaign worked with the Sammamish neighborhood group, with 54 percent of people voting to get rid of it. East Bellevue hung on with 53 percent approval, but just a 75-vote margin.
No active campaign is planned against the community council this year, said Balducci, who co-chaired the “One City Campaign” in 2001 as a neighborhood activist. Some residents recently started the Lake Hills Neighborhood Association, which is working with the community council.
The council did not oppose a new proposal this year for a Lake Hills Shopping Center expansion, she said. Now, the council is “sort of a benign nuisance,” Balducci said.
Community council members say they opposed the first Lake Hills expansion because the new traffic would have inundated the neighborhood. The new proposal has far less retail space and reasonable traffic impacts, they said.
The residents are “overjoyed with it and they certainly like it better than the original proposal,” Keeffe said.
Council members say they have vetoed several projects that would have hurt the community, such as an apartment building in Robinswood Park. They say they persuaded the city to add noise walls and landscaping to road projects such as expansions of 140th and 148th avenues.
Three neighborhood residents — Joel Glass, a city transportation commission member, and Chris and Susan Hazelman — wrote an opposition statement in the King County Voters Pamphlet. According to the statement, the council “has outlived its usefulness” and has cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars by suing over various issues.
The council has gone to court against the city, with both sides suing each other, over issues ranging from traffic to the amount of money the city contributes to the council’s budget. The city has not paid any of the council’s legal bills the past few years, but has paid to defend itself.
Council members say they receive information about development projects at every step of the permitting process, and that if the council didn’t exist, residents would be in the same boat as other neighborhoods: often finding out about projects late in the game.
“The best government is the government closest to home,” Keeffe said.
Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or firstname.lastname@example.org