Community Post

Monday: Court case about Design Review process

 This is an individual message from Chris Leman (206) 322-5463, [email protected], and not offered on behalf of any organization.  

Citizen observers are welcome and needed on Monday, July 7, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. in King County Courthouse (516 Third Avenue) room E-733 as Superior Court Judge Julie Spector hears arguments by citizen activist Dennis Saxman and by lawyers for a developer and the City of Seattle in a case that Saxman has brought, arguing that Seattle’s design review and project approval process is not obeying the law. 

Saxman alleges serious problems in Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development, the Hearing Examiner’s office, and the City Attorney’s office.  He had appealed the DPD approval of a land use project on the 500 block of Pine Street between Belmont and Summit in Capitol Hill’s Pike-Pine neighborhood–ground zero for badly designed overdevelopment.  When the Hearing Examiner sided with DPD, Saxman took the case to Superior Court. 

 It helps a citizen appellant for members of the public to be there in respectful attendance, and you are welcome to attend 9-10 a.m. Monday at the County Courthouse, room E-733.  If you want further information, below is detail on the case, and how to donate if you are so inclined.  

 Why the case matters.  Saxman has undertaken this effort because he believes that principles important to many Seattle neighborhoods are at stake, and that the project review system as it is currently practiced, is just plain unfair.  Although no longer a practicing attorney, he benefits from his training and experience as an attorney in California, where he is still an inactive member of the Bar.   

   Many who closely follow the workings of Seattle’s design review process feel that the volunteer review boards, City staff, and Hearing Examiner do not always take the design guidelines seriously, thus favoring developers and undermining existing zoning.  Bringing this dysfunctional system to the scrutiny of Superior Court poses the possibility of overturning it, or at least exposing such problems that the Mayor and City Council are forced into reforms. 

 Few have the energy and knowledge for an administrative appeal, and then the tenacity to take DPD and the Hearing Examiner to court.  Dennis Saxman is that rare person who is seeing his case through, dramatizing the need for reform not only of DPD and the Office of the Hearing Examiner, but also of the City Attorney’s office, which seems to be over-zealous in defending the City’s position, acting in a number of instances to make citizen appeals particularly difficult.  

 Summary of the case.   Saxman’s appeal to the Hearing Examiner argued that (1) the DPD Director was not justified in making a SEPA determination of nonsignificance; (2) in approving departures from the Land Use Code, the DPD Director had failed to show that development would better meet the intent of the neighborhood’s design guidelines; and (3) that the relevant design guidelines for the neighborhood had not been followed by the Design Review Board in making its decisions.

When the Hearing Examiner sided with DPD, Saxman filed a lengthy Land Use petition urging the Superior Court to find that the Hearing Examiner: (1) did not meaningfully consider and weigh all of the arguments and evidence; (2) did not weigh the credibility of DPD’s and the developer’s testimony and evidence; (3) treated Saxman and DPD differently when it came to the submission of evidence; (4) failed to adequately address appearance of fairness doctrine issues; (5) made errors of facts and law; (6) erred in finding the granting of departures was justified; and (7) erred in concluding that the project was consistent with the design guidelines.

 Benefits of the case.  Sixteen neighborhoods in Seattle have neighborhood-specific design guideline, and others are about to get them.  Despite the guidelines, these neighborhoods continue to experience development that clashes with the neighborhood context—the very problem that neighborhood-specific design guidelines were supposed to solve.  Saxman argues that, while neighborhood-specific design guidelines are meant to control design outcomes, the design review boards pay inadequate attention to the guidelines and DPD fails to ensure that they do, regarding the guidelines as not being binding. 

 Saxman’s case may establish a legal precedent that DPD and the Design Review Boards must follow the law and the design guidelines when evaluating projects; and more fully consider and heed public input.  A clear victory would mean that the days of lax enforcement of neighborhood design guidelines by the DPD would be at an end and developers would be put on notice that they are required to abide by laws and guidelines proposed by the neighborhoods and enacted by City Council.

 Here is Dennis Saxman’s summary of his goals:  “In a nutshell, I think multiple design review, departure and SEPA analysis requirements are being ignored.  If I prevail in this lawsuit, that should begin to change.  I also think it would go a long ways towards beginning the repair of a review process that, as practiced, is highly biased against public appellants such as myself and that is not conducted according to the requirements of the law.”

 Should Saxman lose his battle at the Superior Court level, the research he has done will still do a lot of good.  He has found partiality and arbitrariness in the system–evidence that could help push the Mayor and City Council to reform the design review boards, DPD, the Hearing Examiner’s office, and the City Attorney’s office.  If you have questions about the case or would like to receive documents about it, contact Dennis Saxman at (206) 328-5326 or [email protected].  As mentioned above, the hearing (case no. 08-2-05294-0 SEA) will be held 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday, July 7 in King County Courthouse room E-733, Superior Court Judge Julie Spector’s courtroom.  Citizen observers are welcome and needed. 

 Dennis Saxman has undertaken this case despite chronic poor health and very low income.  It is not overdramatic to say that in expending vast amounts of energy and time, he is risking his life for a citizen voice and good design in Seattle’s neighborhoods.   He needs donations to help afford the filing fees, exhibits, and the official transcript that, as appellant, he is required to provide.   Checks can be made out to Dennis Saxman and addressed to him at 1717 Bellevue Avenue #205, Seattle, WA 98122. 

0 thoughts on “Monday: Court case about Design Review process

  1. It was interesting. The judge will make her ruling before the end of the month, maybe a little sooner.

  2. If you were there? This case, at least Council’s response to it, will be extremely important for so many reasons…