From left, Position 1 candidates Chris Reh and Bryan Weinstein and Position 2 candidates Richard Swanson and Mariah Bettise discuss growth and density. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

Issaquah City Council candidates debate traffic, growth at Blakely Hall forum

The 2017 Issaquah mayor candidates have debated the topics of growth, density, traffic and transportation at length.

But on the evening of Aug. 23 at Blakely Hall in the Issaquah Highlands, it was the City Council candidates who got a chance to tackle these tough issues.

Management consultant Chris Reh is running against Brian Weinstein to fill Position 1, which Deputy Council President Mary Lou Pauly is vacating as she runs for mayor.

Position 2 incumbent Mariah Bettise, who was appointed to the position last year, is running to fulfill the last two years of the term. Media consultant Richard Swanson is challenging her for the seat. During the forum, Swanson publicly announced his support for Deputy Council President Mary Lou Pauly, who is currently running for mayor.

Growth and density

Given that Issaquah will reach its growth goal for the year 2031 next year, the candidates were asked how they would work to keep growth smart, especially in already-dense neighborhoods like the Highlands.

Reh expressed his passion for keeping the charm and character of Issaquah despite the new buildings.

“It’s a critical thing to maintain the character of this neighborhood that you bought into,” Reh told the crowd of Highlands residents, adding, “The role of the City Council is to advocate for you — to be your voice.”

Reh does believe that the moratorium, which went into effect a year ago and is slated to run until the end of 2017, was the right move at the right time. A pause in building was necessary, he said, to “ensure [the neighborhoods] develop in such a way that we maintain the character” of Issaquah.

“We need to have a clear vision [of] what the plan is” for Central Issaquah, he said. He would like to see density increase in the valley floor rather than the Highlands.

Weinstein was adamant that “growth has to pay its own way,” and used metaphors to illustrate his point about growth being out of hand.

“Growth has to be cared for,” Weinstein said. “If we don’t take care of the growth … we’re gonna be like the crazy cat lady who can’t afford to pay for all of her cats.”

He called the density increase in the Issaquah Highlands — set to grow even more after the council’s recent decision to agree to Polygon Northwest’s request to transfer 100 Transfer of Development Rights to the Highlands — equivalent to the city “gorg[ing] itself at the buffet of the Highlands.”

“I think the Highlands is done,” he said of growth.

According to Weinstein, those developers who wish to build in Issaquah should be prepared to pay for the infrastructure improvements that will be needed when they bring more population to the area.

“The most precious things we have are resources of land and money,” he said, alluding to the agreement with Polygon, which involved giving a tract of city-owned land to the Bellevue developer. “[It] shouldn’t just be given away because a developer can’t make their project pencil out … Development … has to pay its own way.”

In Swanson’s view, listening to the community, holding people accountable and asking the hard questions are all key parts of tackling the growth question.

Swanson did not agree with the decision to move the 100 TDRs to the Highlands.

“A better understanding of what the Highlands wants to be would allow us to make better decisions about how to manage the growth,” he stated, pointing out that 1,000 jobs are created at Amazon in Seattle every month, bringing more people to Issaquah.

Swanson is a self-proclaimed “big fan of the moratorium.”

“The City Council doesn’t have the answers they need to manage the growth we’ve got,” he said, noting that a pause was needed.

Bettise named herself as “a big proponent of the Central Issaquah Plan,” as “the growth we have needs to be focused on the valley floor and within the Central Issaquah area.”

“I voted for the moratorium and was a strong proponent of the moratorium. The reason why was that we did need to take a pause … We weren’t seeing the vision of the CIP come to fruition” Bettise said.

Bettise pointed out that legally, the Highlands is currently listed as a TDR receiving site.

“Does the Highlands want to continue to be listed as a receiving site? Those are the kind of things and the community engagement that I would like to hear about because I think, especially in terms of housing, the Highlands is at capacity,” she said.

She emphasized that she would like to receive input from the community when it comes to making development decisions in Issaquah.

“There’s still a lot to hear from the community and I would like to hear from you.”

Traffic and transportation

“We need to be honest about traffic,” Weinstein said, explaining that “barring a huge amount of money — that I don’t know where it’s gonna come from — there really isn’t a lot we can do to increase capacity” on already existing roads.

He brought up the $50 million traffic bond that failed to pass on the 2016 ballot, and pointed to what he called the city’s lack of truthfulness as the reason for why the bond was not voted in.

“The bond failed because many of us felt the city wasn’t honest with us … Let’s get back to the transparency and honesty first,” he said.

Reh said that the important question when looking at traffic should be, “How do we reroute intra-Issaquah traffic?”

He suggested “looking at ways to assess impact fees,” as well as fixing the Interstate 90/State Route 18 interchange as measures to combat traffic congestion.

Ultimately, Reh said, it’s about looking toward the future and anticipating the transportation issues that will come down the road.

“We need to fix today’s problems, but that’s not enough,” he emphasized.

Bettise called traffic “a huge problem in Issaquah,” and said that it has to be looked at in a two-fold approach — regionally and locally.

On a regional level, she would like to see State Route 169, the I-90/SR-18 interchange and the Issaquah-Hobart Road looked at.

Locally, she said, it’s important to “[be] able to think outside the box” when coming up with ideas.

“I don’t think there is anything that would come before me … that I wouldn’t take a long, hard look at and research.”

Swanson, too, agreed that original ideas would be needed to solve Issaquah’s traffic headache. He called the I-90/SR-18 interchange “a terrible interchange,” and named regional traffic on State Route 900 as another big issue.

Swanson reiterated the complexity of the problems, and said that the city would “need to take the resources that we do have and get creative.”

“These are systematic, long-term problems that don’t have simple ‘press play and enter’ kind of solutions,” he said.

City budget

When it came time to discuss the city’s budget, Reh pointed to his experience as a management consultant for “state and local governments across the country.”

“I have a passion for great government,” he said.

Reh would like to see more transparency from the city in terms of spending.

“I don’t think it is … right to ask for more tax dollars until we can tell you we are spending every dollar that we get from you in the most appropriate way possible, he said.

Weinstein said tax funds should be spent wisely, because they are the hard-earned dollars of Issaquah residents.

“It’s your money and I’m gonna treat it like it’s your money — respectfully,” he said.

If elected, he would work to see the city collect more impact fees.

“Let’s try and do better … because it’s your money,” he said.

Bettise said that the council is currently “looking at really creative solutions for raising money in a different way.”

She acknowledged that, among voters, there is “a lot of tax fatigue right now, especially after ST3.”

“In the last budgeting session, we made a lot of great strides,” Bettise said.

Swanson said that it is important for the city to first pay for the “essential services that go into making the city a vibrant place,” such as police and fire.

“From there, you look at other services you want to invest in,” he said.

“We’re gonna need to spend some money trying to better understand what the community wants,” Swanson added.

Unopposed candidates

Three candidates are also running unopposed for council seats.

Newcomer Justin Walsh, who works as an attorney, is running for Position 3. He named traffic congestion, growth without adequate infrastructure and housing prices as his most important issues.

“We need to ensure that the infrastructure that’s in place to support the growth comes before the growth happens,” Walsh said.

Incumbent Position 5 Council President Stacy Goodman pointed to her efforts to ban truck traffic from Olde Town streets and her proposal of the moratorium as some of her most successful actions on the council.

“I pledge to you that I will elevate and continue to elevate traffic and transportation issues to be the No. 1 priority that they deserve to be … It’s time that we take ownership,” she said.

Position 7 incumbent Tola Marts wondered aloud if his 19-year-old daughter would one day be able to afford to live in Issaquah.

“We have to have jobs for the people who live here and we have to have housing for the people who work here, because otherwise we just fill up our freeways,” he said.

Nicole Jennings/staff photo

Deputy Council President and mayoral candidate Mary Lou Pauly reacts to council candidate Richard Swanson’s public endorsement of her. Nicole Jennings/staff photo

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