First things first: the Seattle Planning Commission

The Charter actually has one item that is worth looking at by itself. The planning commission began its life in 1920 as the Seattle Zoning Commission. Zoning was an innovation at that time. Take a moment to let this settle in: the Euclid decision wouldn’t happen for another 6 years!

Seattle was way out ahead in terms of land use in the 1920s. It’s hard to believe that the legal beavers at the City today would advise doing what the City did in 1920 in the absence of any clarity about whether the innovation of zoning would withstand a hearty legal challenge.

The Zoning Commission was created to survey the City with an eye toward recommending land use in various zones across the city. The commission was composed of the City Engineer, Superintendent of Buildings, one Parks Trustee, and six people appointed by the Mayor and by 1923 they had their recommendation in the form of a draft ordinance. The City Council took action, creating the City’s first Zoning Code. The Planning commission took things from there when it was created in 1924.

There is something really satisfying about this story. Seattle didn’t wait around for a drop dead legal case making zoning legal. They just went and did it. While their boldness is commendable and much needed today (I pray the ghosts of that Council would haunt our own), what they created needs to be undone.

The days of zoning are done. The classic “pig in the parlor” arguments are hard to make in the 21st century. It seems that a rewrite of the Charter is in order, putting land use in its own section and elevating the power and role of the planning commission. Let’s take a look at what the Charter says about the Planning Commission today.

Article XIV: City Planning Commission

The language in the Charter probably originates with the creation of the Planning Commission in 1924 but the Commission was enshrined in the Charter in 1969 by a vote of the people. Article XIV mandates that “there shall be a City Planning Commission composed of such number of members, with such qualifications and serving such terms of office as shall be provided by ordinance.” The ordinance is buried in Title III, Chapter 3 of the Seattle Municipal Code.

The Charter further provides that members of the Planning Commission “shall receive no compensation” and it’s membership will be 15 members drawn from all over the city. Practically speaking, like most boards and commissions, the appointments are divided among the Council and Mayor and come from different professions or areas of expertise.

It shall be the duty of such Commission to make recommendation to the Legislative and other City departments on the City’s broad planning goals and policies and on such plans for the development of the City as its present and future needs may require. The Commission shall also advise and make recommendations to the Legislative and other City departments in connection with matters relating to the City’s physical development and redevelopment as may be directed by ordinance.

Right now the Planning Commission studies, analyzes, and recommends. It doesn’t have any authority. So here’s what I propose:

Article XIV: City Planning and Development Commission

Section 1.

There shall be a City Planning and Development Commission composed of such number of members, with such qualifications and serving such terms of office as shall be provided by ordinance. The manner in which members of such Commission shall be appointed shall be provided by ordinance 9 members, 3 appointed by the Mayor, 3 by the City Council, and 3 elected by the people.

Sec. 2.

Members shall receive no compensation for service on said Commission as such. The Commission shall supervise and fully implement the City’s Comprehensive plan in coordination with the Department of Planning and Development.
It shall be the duty of such Commission to direct City departments to fulfill the City’s broad planning goals and policies and on such plans for the development of the City as its present and future needs may require.

The Commission shall also direct and oversee City departments in connection with matters relating to the City’s physical development and redevelopment as may be directed by ordinance, making an effort to encourage the mixing of uses in all zones of the city. The Commission will be charged with planning for, encouraging, accommodating, and welcoming new development and growth within the city of Seattle.

Sec. 3

It shall be the duty of such Commission to make recommendation to the Legislative and other City departments on the City’s broad planning goals and policies and on such plans for the development of the City as its present and future needs may require. The Commission shall also advise and make recommendations to the Legislative and other City departments in connection with matters relating to the City’s physical development and redevelopment as may be directed by ordinance.

Sec. 3

The Commission will have the authority, if allowed by state law, to issue bonds for the purposes of making public improvements and make debt service payments using increases in revenue from taxation of designated properties that benefit from the improvements.

Note: this would allow the Commission to act as the sponsor of a TIF district if the option is created at the state level. There may need to be language to engineer the devolution of the City’s authority to the Commission.

Sec. 4

The Commission will have the 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. The Commission will determine the nature and scope of public benefits as proscribed and established by state law.

Note: this would repeal related sections in Article IV, effectively transferring authority from the Council to the Commission.

Sec. 5

The Commission will provide and receive recommendations for making local improvements and to levy and collect special assessments on property benefited. The Commission will encourage all available avenues for local improvements within the limits of the state Constitution, specifically Articles VII and VIII.

Note: this would repeal related sections in Article IV, effectively transferring authority from the Council to the Commission.

Sec. 6

The Commission will review and approve the construction of new bridges, viaducts and tunnels, and to regulate the use thereof based on their consistency with the City’s Comprehensive Plan, and the requirements of State law.

Note: this would repeal related sections in Article IV, effectively transferring authority from the Council to the Commission.

This is a bit of a hatchet job, I know. But my point is that the Charter should put these things in one place and profoundly boost the power and authority of the Planning Commission to fully implement the Comprehensive Plan. I also think that the Charter should make a strong “pro growth” statement, putting Seattle boldly on the path of not just tolerating growth but making it happen.

There are probably other things that could be done in the Charter to push toward this outcome. But the bottom line is that the Charter needs an injection of the boldness the City had years ago when they adopted a zoning code. Ironically, today the City needs to find the courage to undo zoning and push uses together.

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5 Responses to First things first: the Seattle Planning Commission

  1. Pingback: Saved by zero: it’s time to try zero based zoning | Seattle's Land Use Code

  2. Pingback: Chapter 23.55: Signs | Seattle's Land Use Code

  3. David Sucher says:

    Well your effort is a noble one but you immediately lost me with allowing the Planning Commision to “have the authority, if allowed by state law, to issue bonds for the purposes of making public improvements and make debt service payments using increases in revenue from taxation of designated properties that benefit from the improvements.

    I don’t even want the Mayor and City Council to have that power much less an _appointed_ body.

    Then again, if you like the excess we had with residential lending, then you’ll love widespread use of TIF.

  4. Pingback: Two posts of interest: Reforming how we do land use in Seattle | Seattle's Land Use Code

  5. Pingback: How About a Charter Amendment For a TOD “Superagency?” - Seattle Transit Blog

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