The Bellevue Planning Commission has seen a dramatic makeover since City Councilmember Kevin Wallace has overseen its appointments.
Bellevue City Councilmember Kevin Wallace has given the Planning Commission a makeover, and it is backing away from some shoreline regulations under consideration.
Since he became liaison two years ago, Wallace has nominated four of the seven members, each with strong Republican connections, a law practice representing property owners in land-use cases, or both.
The City Council approved those appointments and that of another commissioner who resigned when he moved away from the city.
Wallace says his appointees are restoring a balance between protecting the environment and freeing landowners from onerous regulations as the Planning Commission reviews potential shoreline regulations.
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His political foes say he’s trying to “stack the deck” with commissioners who are less interested in keeping Lake Sammamish and other waterways healthy than in rolling back rules that lakefront-property owners find inconvenient.
Planning commissioners, who serve four-year terms, advise the City Council on issues such as downtown growth, redevelopment of the Bel-Red Corridor and Eastgate, and shoreline protection.
The council’s debate over Wallace’s latest appointment reopened the kind of bitter infighting that characterized a two-year struggle over Sound Transit’s light-rail route through Bellevue.
“I’ve made it very clear a number of times that the Shoreline Management Program has to balance the protection of the environment with people’s property rights,” Wallace said. “Candidates that I selected I think were the most qualified candidates of the pool to achieve that goal.”
The Planning Commission has directed staff to model vegetation requirements after Mercer Island’s less-restrictive rules. The shoreline plan also will regulate bulkheads, docks and the distance between homes and the water’s edge.
Wallace said he became more concerned about the plan after he visited the Lake Sammamish home of Cole Sherwood, who was allowed to build a larger dock that would accommodate his wheelchair — but only when he replaced the lower section of his lawn with more natural landscaping and put the dock so far above the water that he says he can’t get into a boat.
Lakefront residents uniformly blasted a proposed shoreline plan at a hearing last year even though it would have replaced the existing vegetative “no-touch” zone with a less stringent standard.
Former Councilmember Grant Degginger, who was liaison to the Planning Commission for 10 years, said he “never knew the political stripes of the people I appointed,” and is troubled that Wallace has chosen candidates who “have already staked public opinions on issues the commission is working on.”
Who’s been approved
Here are the commissioners chosen by Wallace and approved by the council:
• Chairman Kevin Turner, a contributor to the King County Republican Central Committee, GOP candidates, City Council candidates allied with Wallace, and some Democrats.
• Daniel Himebaugh, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which fights for property rights and “limited government” and which won an appellate-court decision that struck down a key part of King County’s critical-areas ordinance. Himebaugh resigned in October when he moved out of the city.
• Diane Tebelius, former state Republican Party chairwoman, Lake Sammamish property owner who, before joining the Planning Commission, was a Washington Sensible Shorelines Association board member and moderated a presentation by the group to the Planning Commission in opposition to strict shoreline regulations.
• John Carlson, KOMO NewsRadio talk-show host, one-time GOP nominee for governor and author of the successful 1993 statewide “three strikes, you’re out” initiative.
• Aaron Laing, a land-use attorney who represents property owners and developers, and who received donations from Wallace and $5,000 from the Republican Party in his unsuccessful 2011 campaign for City Council.
Puget Sound Business Journal published an op-ed piece by Laing last fall criticizing Bellevue’s draft shoreline regulations as ineffective and overly restrictive.
Wallace also supported reappointment of two commissioners, including Hal Ferris, who has contributed to Democratic candidates and council opponents of Wallace.
Laing was appointed this month to replace Himebaugh on the Planning Commission. The vote for Laing was 5-2, a departure from the council’s usual practice of accepting without dissent its liaisons’ recommendations for appointments to boards and commissions.
Councilmembers Claudia Balducci and John Chelminiak voted against Laing’s appointment, saying Wallace didn’t follow standard procedures for informing colleagues about candidates and inviting them to interviews. (Wallace said he moved quickly to fill an unexpected vacancy and wasn’t aware any written procedures were in place.)
Chelminiak, a Republican, also said Wallace seemed to be choosing only Republicans and noted that city code says commissioners “shall be selected without respect to political affiliations.”
Mayor Conrad Lee declared Chelminiak’s comment out of order as a personal attack, and Councilmember Don Davidson said it was “absolutely wrong” for Chelminiak to raise a partisan issue.
Chelminiak said later that Wallace’s appointees were all “really great people” qualified for the volunteer positions. But, he added, “The truth is we have seen five appointments to the Planning Commission and it’s been five people who have the same general political philosophy as Kevin, the liaison.”
When everyone shares the same viewpoint, Chelminiak said, it becomes “an effort to stack the deck.”
Ferris, a planning commissioner since 2006, said the appointments of Carlson and Tebelius created a 4-3 majority “in favor of the individual property rights over the benefit of the greater good.”
To which Carlson, a Wallace appointee, said, “It is understandable that people who had been on the winning end of a 4-3 majority, who are now on the losing end of a 4-3 majority, might not be happy with that outcome.”
Before Wallace’s appointments, Washington Sensible Shorelines Association board member Marty Nizlek said, “We didn’t feel we were represented at all.” The new members have brought “a dramatic shift” to the commission, he said.
Planning Commission Chair Turner said the burden is on city staff to show that regulations will actually improve water quality or fish habitat: “If people say there’s no better data, then it’s really hard for me to presume that I should regulate.”
But Mercer Island’s less restrictive vegetation rules, which the Bellevue Planning Commission wants to follow, haven’t been approved by the state Department of Ecology. The environmental group Futurewise warns that copying them could put Bellevue’s plan at risk of rejection.
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org