Providence Heights has been rezoned to accommodate a fourth comprehensive high school and an elementary school.
In a 5-2 vote, the Issaquah City Council ruled to approve the comprehensive plan and zoning amendments of the Providence Heights property at the Jan. 21 meeting.
The final vote follows the city council’s ruling of postponing the official vote from Dec. 16.
With the passing of the Issaquah School District (ISD) 2016 bond to build four new schools, the district scoured the area for spaces to accommodate the growing district’s needs. The district purchased the Providence Heights property with the intention to build a comprehensive high school, an elementary school, and a football stadium on the campus.
The current city zoning and code requirements of the 40-acre property, made up of three parcels, would only allow for the construction of a middle school, an elementary school, and athletic fields such as baseball, football and soccer fields that would be open to public use.
The city administration’s proposed changes to the 2019 comprehensive plan and zoning map include redesignation and zoning of those properties.
However, the city’s planning policy commission (PPC) recommended at an Oct. 24, 2019 meeting that the city retain its current land-use and zoning of parcels one and two. That zoning prohibits ISD from building the fourth high school on the site.
The PPC also recommended designating parcel three as a community facilities-open space to create a buffer between any school amenities and the nearby residential area.
All proposed land-use changes require a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process, identifying the potential environmental impacts. For any proposed action, the city determines whether they think there will be significant environmental impacts. A determination of significance then leads to further analysis and mitigation discussions.
In the case of the eight parcels, including the Providence Heights property, the city previously issued a SEPA determination of non-significance.
An appeal was filed by Providence Point Umbrella Association (PPUA) to the city’s SEPA determination of non-significance on Oct. 22.
Following a SEPA appeal hearing, the council denied the SEPA appeal made by the PPUA, thus upholding the city’s previously issued determination of non-significance for a comprehensive plan amendment that would rezone eight parcels, including the 40-acre Providence Heights property.
ISD and PPUA failure to reach agreement
The Dec. 16 postponed vote was formed based on the hope for ISD and Providence Point residents to meet and form mutual understanding and cooperation.
“It’s better to take more time to better understand each other better before making an either/or decision,” Councilmember Stacy Goodman said at the Dec. 16 meeting. “It’ll make for a better outcome. Even in the worst-case scenario and no solution is found, at least there’s more understanding.”
A month has passed since the Dec. 16 postponed vote. During that time, ISD and the PPUA did not meet face-to-face.
PPUA president Sue Anne Boelens said ISD declined requests to meet or to address the concerns of Providence Point residents.
ISD Superintendent Ron Thiele said ISD did not decline to meet with Providence Point residents. He said he wanted to meet with the school board before meeting with the PPUA. Due to winter school break schedules, he said the earliest he and the school board could meet was Jan. 9. Thiele said he communicated with the PPUA before and after the Jan. 9 school board meeting to try to schedule a meeting.
Though ISD and the PPUA did not meet in person, their only communication was via email. Among those emails was a settlement agreement from ISD to the PPUA dated Jan. 13.
ISD shared proposed commitments with the community regarding the use and development of the Providence Heights property for a fourth comprehensive high school and elementary school on Dec. 10.
“These commitments were in response to some of the concerns heard by the district from neighbors in the adjacent Providence Point community. The ISD has now taken a further step to put these commitments into a proposed formal, legally binding settlement agreement with the Providence Point Umbrella Homeowners Association (HOA),” the district said in a release.
According to the district’s drafted settlement agreement, upon council’s vote to approve the Providence Heights comprehensive plan and zoning amendments to allow a comprehensive high school, the settlement agreement would require that any ISD development include an average 60-foot vegetated buffer, with a minimum of 20 feet at its narrowest, and sight obscuring landscape screening in excess of minimum code requirements for both area and type. The settlement agreement also stated that some 90 percent of stadium-related activities will end no later than 10 p.m. The settlement agreement also ensures an onsite queue to address traffic concerns as well as fencing along the 228th Avenue side of the school site.
“The agreement also formalizes our participation in ongoing communication with neighboring property owners, measures to encourage alternatives to single-occupancy vehicle traffic, and design and operational considerations for minimizing impacts of any stadium built on the property,” ISD said in a release. “However, it must be noted that decisions made by the city of Issaquah and Issaquah City Council throughout the project permitting process and site plan reviews must facilitate these commitments.”
However, if the PPUA signed the district’s settlement agreement, the PPUA would waive its rights to appeal any and all future proceedings thereafter.
The PPUA did not accept the ISD settlement agreement.
Boelens and the rest of the outspoken Providence Point residents are disappointed with the outcome.
“This is consistent with the practices of the school district throughout this process — they continue to disregard the fact that putting a noisy high school and sports stadium on acreage surrounded by quiet, peaceful retirement living is wrong,” she said. “The stadium is planned only about 250 feet from Providence Point senior housing (less than the length of the football field itself). There are no commitments to mitigate the impacts to the retirement communities. They won’t even agree to the type of fence to be installed to provide security for our elderly residents along the boundary between our properties.”
When approaching the anticipated vote, councilmembers were frustrated, disappointed and divided.
Councilmember Victoria Hunt said she felt it was important for both sides to have an open dialogue.
“I don’t really understand why there wasn’t a meeting, and I would urge both sides to have a meeting, and it is different than email,” she said. “I really believe that talking to someone face-to-face — you get a different perspective on things and it’s very hard to understand someone else’s perspective without actually meeting.”
Hunt also said she appreciated receiving all the letters submitted to the council from citizens regarding the issue. What struck her while reading all the letters was the diversity in the perspectives among the Providence Point residents. In many of the letters, she said there is hope that it can be worked out.
Hunt said she believes it’s possible for the school district to work with the community to find compromises.
“I will be supportive of this rezone because I think that there are elements of this plan that can be mutually beneficial and it will take collaboration,” she said. “I think there is potential here, and that’s why I’m supporting the rezone.”
Councilmembers Tola Marts and Barbara de Michele said they were in support of rezoning the Providence Heights property, as they were at the Dec. 16 meeting.
Councilmember Lindsey Walsh admitted she attended the night’s meeting feeling uncertain and said she was disappointed and frustrated that the school district and the PPUA did not meet.
“I am disappointed in how the school district has responded and not responded to the community after we gave them an opportunity to work together…I don’t think what we asked for was something that was hard to do. I think it is the minimum that is required to respect members of the community who will be impacted by this. I’m very frustrated by the lack of meeting and sending a settlement agreement without an associated meeting and the message that communicates to the community,” Walsh said. “Who wants to be sent a legal agreement to sign away their rights because [the district] feels like [they’ve] heard you? That’s not the way you treat neighbors and I fear for where this leaves the community in the next round of conversations.”
Walsh said although she is frustrated with the way that the school district has responded in these cases, it’s the responsibility as a council when looking at a comprehensive plan amendment is to recognize the need for new schools. However, she said the responsibility doesn’t end there.
Councilmembers Stacy Goodman and Chris Reh also expressed their frustrations regarding the lack of a face-to-face meeting between the school district and the PPUA.
“This feels like a win-lose situation, and I don’t think that’s fair to the community,” Goodman said.
Goodman said if not for the stadium, the other impacts of the high school could possibly be mitigated.
“Without a stadium, the issue of lights and noise goes away, the footprint for the high school would be smaller, more trees could be retained, the environmental issues could be lessened,” she said. “If this were a proposed rezone so that the city, county or even private entity could build a stadium, I would say no. A stadium accompanying a high school is still a stadium and a high school without a stadium is still a high school…I believe the schools should prioritize classroom space over stadium use.”
Goodman also said she is not comfortable relying on the master site plan to process and mitigate all the issues as the council will be limited in what it can require or condition as part of that process. For those reasons, Goodman said she was not in favor of the rezone.
For Councilmember Zach Hall, this was one of his first votes in office. It was a personal one to him because he attended and graduated from the district. However, he said he felt torn as he empathized with both communities.
“It’s as if we’re talking with each other through a closed door. I hope we’re able to open that door and listen on both sides,” he said. “I agree that in-person communication is the root of community, at least the root of Issaquah.”
Hall also mirrored other councilmembers thoughts regarding that there is a solution.
“I don’t believe in win-lose situations. I believe we can have semi-win and semi-win situations, and that’s what I want to find here,” he said.
Hall said he voted in favor of the rezone because the council should be compatible with the intent of the comprehensive plan amendment and the intent of the growth management act. Though it’s the first step of many, he said he has concerns about the master site plan and that he looks forward to addressing those concerns then.
Councilmembers Reh and Goodman cast the dissenting votes.
Thiele said he was pleased to overcome this hurdle.
“It’s just the first step in a long process,” he said.
Thiele admitted that he feels he should have tried harder to arrange an in-person meeting with the PPUA prior to the Jan. 21 council meeting. Going forward, he said he will be reaching out to the PPUA to find a compromise.
Richard Aramburu, the Providence Point residents’ attorney, said he was disappointed with the decision.
“The council has not followed the rules,” he said. “It doesn’t follow the criteria for not being materially detrimental.”
Aramburu also said the council is under the impression they can make significant changes to the master site plan when such a thing isn’t really possible. He said the council will be limited in what changes they can enforce.
Going forward, Aramburu said the PPUA likely will file appeals as the project progresses, yet no decision has been made yet.