City council delays Providence Heights rezone vote to Jan. 21

The delay will give ISD and Providence Point residents more time to come up with a solution.

Rezoning plans for the Providence Heights property have again stalled.

The Issaquah City Council voted to postpone the final vote on the comprehensive plan and zoning amendments of the Providence Heights property at a Dec. 16 meeting.

In a 4-2 vote, the council ruled to postpone the final vote to the council’s Jan. 21, 2020, meeting.

Based on evidence and testimony presented at a Dec. 2 State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) appeal hearing, the council denied the SEPA appeal made by the Providence Point Umbrella Association (PPUA). The council upheld 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.

Background

With the passing of Issaquah School District 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 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 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.

The PPUA, who represents the residents of Providence Point, filed an appeal to the city’s SEPA determination of non-significance on Oct. 22.

According to PPUA’s notice of appeal, Providence Point would be impacted by the construction of schools on the property because of “adverse traffic, access, noise, and lighting impacts, loss of existing mature trees, incompatible land-use impacts, and drainage impacts, among others…”

The PPUA’s appeal also stated that the city’s environmental checklist was inadequate and deficient.

The environmental checklist was created by the city’s long-range planning manager, Trish Heinonen. At the Dec. 2 hearing, Heinonen said the checklist was created for all eight parcels included in the comprehensive plan amendment and was not specific to the Providence Heights property.

Heinonen explained that the checklist is part of a phased SEPA review, a process often used for non-project rezones. Since the district has not submitted any formal site plans, it is considered a non-project.

Following the SEPA appeal hearing, the council denied the SEPA appeal made by the PPUA. The council’s next decision was to approve, deny or delay the Providence Heights zoning at the Dec. 16 meeting.

A promise of understanding, working together

At the Dec. 16 meeting, supporters of both the school district and Providence Point residents took to the podium to echo their wishes to the council before the significant decision.

Gretel von Bargen, a biology teacher at Skyline High School, highlighted how overcrowding in Issaquah schools negatively affects students’ quality of life and education. She said students, including her son who is a freshman, don’t have enough time to eat lunch at school because the lines are too long. The district’s overcrowding issues also turn prospective teachers away from working in the district because of classroom sharing and large class sizes.

Sue Anne Boelens, the PPUA president, said she and residents of Providence Point understand the district’s needs to address overcrowding.

“We all understand the urgency of the schools needed to address overcrowding in the classrooms in Issaquah and Sammamish. However, at this point, there are still significant concerns from the community that have not been addressed. In my research, I have not found a high school that is sited entirely around a retirement community, an assisted living center and a nursing care facility,” she said. “We believe there are mitigations that can be put in place that would be acceptable to all parties, but at this time there is not a commitment from the school district to do that…We urge the city council to delay the approval of the rezoning to allow additional time to review and discussions between the school district and Providence Point as we attempt to address these outstanding concerns.”

About 20 people delivered public comments on the issue. While many reiterated their stance, some offered hope going forward.

ISD Superintendent Ron Thiele said the district is committed to doing what it can to address the Providence Point residents’ concerns.

“Please know that the Issaquah school district is committed to being a good neighbor and will work in good faith with our city partners and our community neighbors to do what we can in order to help our school integrate nicely into the neighborhood communities we serve,” he said. “I just want to remind us all that as we use our best creative thinking to help address concerns about the siting and construction of schools, that we don’t forget students and staff having to address issues of overcrowding every day and they’ve been doing so for years.”

Francie Peto, a Providence Point resident, said she believes the school district, the city and Providence Point residents can work together to create a model of cooperation.

“I ask that whatever happens To Providence Heights that Providence Point and the Issaquah School District work together to exhibit compassion, respect and teamwork to create a model of cooperation,” she said. “Let’s make their future bright. One that honors their future and ours.”

It was the hope for a mutual understanding and a model of cooperation from the district and Providence Point that left an impression on the council.

A delay with the hope of a better future

All of the proposed 2019 comprehensive plan and zoning map amendments have been considered together, as required under city code. However, given the controversy surrounding the comprehensive plan redesignations and rezones associated with the Providence Heights property and the lack of controversy regarding the remaining portions of the 2019 comprehensive plan and zoning map amendments, the city provided two separate ordinances for council adoption.

The first ordinance includes all of the comprehensive plan amendments with the exception of the school district parcels on the Providence Heights property. The second ordinance includes the redesignations and rezones of the school district parcels at the Providence Heights property. The council voted to approve the first ordinance, granting the comprehensive plan redesignations and rezones for all parcels in the comprehensive plan and zoning map amendments except for the Providence Heights property.

When approaching the vote, councilmembers were divided.

Councilmembers Chris Reh and Stacy Goodman said they were in favor of delaying the vote so Providence Point residents and the school district could continue a dialogue and come up with a solution that would satisfy the needs and concerns of both sides.

Councilmember Paul Winterstein admitted he attended the night’s meeting feeling uncertain.

“This is a really difficult decision. However, there were comments tonight that had a big impact on me. Many times it was said to the effect of ‘We can work this out. I’m sure there’s a solution, we just have to work this out.’ Even some of the leadership from the Providence Point community made comments like that,” he said. “That rang really loud to me that there was a belief that there is a solution here and this is something that can be worked out.”

Reh agreed with Winterstein on the possibility of the school district and the Providence Point residents finding a solution.

“I would feel more comfortable to take more time, for more dialogue so that they can work together to come up with a solution that’s courageous,” Reh said.

Goodman agreed.

“It’s better to take more time to better understand each other better before making an either/or decision,” Goodman said. “It’ll make for a better outcome. Even in the worst-case scenario and no solution is found, at least there’s more understanding.”

Councilmembers Tola Marts and Barbara de Michele said they were ready to approve the rezoning for the Providence Heights property. Walsh felt similarly, saying she doubted much of a solution could be made with more dialogue.

Ultimately, Reh, Goodman, Winterstein and Walsh voted to delay the vote until Jan. 21.

Reactions

For Thiele, he said he was disappointed with the council’s decision to delay the vote.

“Any delay makes me nervous,” he said. Though the vote delay is about one month long, he said he is concerned that the delay could go longer, thus pushing off the projected opening of the school. He said the district is committed to work with Providence Point residents to find the best way to proceed.

Boelens said she appreciated the council’s decision.

“I appreciate the council giving us a couple weeks to talk more,” she said. “We’re willing to continue to work on this and we look forward to speaking with the district.”

The vote is scheduled for Jan. 21, 2020.


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