Maybe there is another blog that needs putting together called “Seattle’s City Charter.” It is a surprisingly long, weighing in at 20,061 words. By comparison the United States Constitution has 7,620 words and the Washington State Constitution 55,612 words.
That the operating system for the entire United States would be so small compared to a state and a city might not seem logical. On the other hand, the US Constitution is a much more lofty and general document which has given rise to the Code of Federal Regulation, which has 50 titles.
The charter is an overly long and detailed document and could be cleaned up. There are things in there like Article XVII, for example, which covers salaries and annual leave for employees that don’t seem to belong in a charter. As for land use there isn’t anything specific calling it out. But there are Articles that cover things that have a big impact on land use
Article IV: Vacations
This is not the kind of vacation that involves going to the beach, but a street vacation, or vacation of publicly owned right of way to allow private use. Article IV section 14 gives the City Council powers to “establish, improve, control and vacate streets and public places.” The section describes the Council’s authority
To lay out and improve streets and other public places, and to regulate and control the use thereof, to authorize or prohibit the location of any railroad or public transportation system or the use of electricity, at, in or upon any of said streets or for other purposes, and to prescribe the terms and conditions upon which the same may be so used, and to regulate the use thereof; to vacate streets and to extend, establish or widen any street, over or across or along the harbor, shore or tide lands in the City.
Here’s what the Seattle Department of Transportation says about street vacations:
Street vacation decisions are City Council actions as provided by State statute. There is no right under the zoning code or elsewhere to vacate or to develop public right-of-way. In order to do so, a discretionary legislative approval must be obtained from the City Council and, under law, the Council may not vacate right-of-way unless it determines that to do so is in the public interest. Part of that determination is to insure that potential development and use of the vacated right-of-way would be in the public interest. This determination may be guided by established land use policies and standards as called for by the street vacation policies, but the Council is not bound by land use policies and codes in making street vacation decisions and may condition or deny vacations as necessary to protect the public interest.
Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) handles the process for street vacations which includes the review and analysis of whether there is a public benefit in a particular street vacation request.
The truth is that street vacations are a huge hassle and often hold up development projects. The problem with the criteria for street vacations is the public benefit provisions. These are largely governed by state law, RCW Chapter 35.79, which considers a vacation a termination of public interest. Even the word vacation sounds like the City is going to the beach, totally giving up any involvement in what happens in the right of way being converted to private use.
Vacations often are made under alleys for parking (a subterranean vacation) or to consolidate lots that are divided by an alley or a street. The thing is that if we look at the big picture, the public interest is served by better mixed use development that can happen with a better footprint.
Too often complicated development projects get hung up by NIMBYs who use the public benefit provisions of the vacation laws as a way to slow down or kill projects. To me a redefinition of “public benefit” would help sustainability when it comes to vacations and the process around them.
Article IV: Change Of Grades; Damage
Now this isn’t about threatening your teacher with a law suit if he doesn’t change your grade from a B- to a B. This is about adjusting streets and alleys to make them more or less hilly or steep. This section of Article IV says that the Council has the authority to “change the grade of any street or alley within its corporate limits and to provide for the payment of damages.”
This could be some kind of artifact from the regrading of large portions of the city years ago. But it could easily come into play for for utility projects or perhaps even for our upcoming tunnel project. I am sure there is a ton of case law and state law that is also relevant here and would limit the Council’s actions on grade changes and what they can pay for damages.
Article IV: Local Improvements, Bridges, Viaducts, and Tunnels, and Harbor and Waterfront
Article IV also gives the Council power to “provide for making local improvements and to levy and collect special assessments on property benefited.” This refers to the Local Improvement District which is outlined in Article VII of the state constitution. Not much detail here, but maybe there should be. The LID process has been painfully slow. Maybe it’s time to put this somewhere else. What if we amended the Charter to give this power and the power of vacation to the Planning Commission? I’m liking that idea. The Commission is coming up next.
If Tax Increment Financing legislation passes, it could be that the Charter would need some amending here to account for that tool as well.
Given what’s been going on lately it’s funny in a sad way that the Council also has the power to “construct and keep in repair bridges, viaducts and tunnels, and to regulate the use thereof.” The Council hasn’t let this power go to waste. Wouldn’t it be simply grand if they passed out street vacations and pushed for the creation of LIDs the way they have for the deep bore tunnel. But that’s a different blog.
And in related news the Council has the power to “control and regulate the use of the harbor and waterfront.” A broad charge also relevant to the tunnel debate.
Article IV: Stone Quarries, Asphalt Plants, and Cemeteries
The Council has the power to “acquire, open and operate stone quarries, either within or without the City limits . . . and to fix the price at which such materials shall be sold.” So if the City wants to get into the concrete business I guess they could. I don’t know if the City has ever done this or not. But this is a good candidate for repeal.
Oh, and if you were planning on opening a new cemetery, you’d better higher a lobbyist because you’ll have to amend the Charter. The City Charter prohibits “the establishment or platting of new cemeteries or the extension of existing cemeteries within the limits of The City of Seattle.”
This might seem rather distantly related to sustainability, but more cemeteries are probably not a good idea. On the other hand, how we dispose of the dead can be done in a sustainable way. I haven’t done any research on it, but I suspect golf courses and cemeteries absorb lots of water and probably dump a lot of chemicals into the water table. But they also do provide fewer square feet of impermeable surface. Maybe they are better than parking lots.
I’m going to save Article XIV, which covers the Planning Commission, for a separate post. Maybe boosting the power of the Commission in the Charter is a good idea.