By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
It was the lowest-key proceeding we’ve ever covered in the city Hearing Examiner‘s room downtown.
On one side of the table in the windowless room on the 40th floor of the city’s Municipal Tower, West Seattleite Inge Anderson, making the case for her appeal of the “determination of non-significance” regarding the upcoming drainage work that will close West Seattle’s only off-leash area, at Westcrest Park, for up to six months.
On the other side, Seattle Parks‘ David Graves.
At the head of the table, Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil and assistant Galen Edlund-Cho.
Under the table, Anderson’s service dog.
In the gallery, no one but your editor here. In some cases, the table is full – with lawyers and witnesses – and spectators fill the seats. Not this time.
We previewed the hearing last Sunday. Anderson contends that the city’s plan will be a hardship on the hundreds of dogs and owners who use the park each day, because Parks intends to open only a much-smaller arra of Westcrest as its replacement. But that wasn’t the only point she argued.
Vancil expects to issue a written ruling “after the holidays.” Here’s how the hearing went:
In appeals of city decisions, the burden is on the appellant to prove that the decision should be overturned. It’s also up to the appellant to be able to sort out the rules and procedures. Before giving the floor to Anderson to present her case, Vancil explained why her written communication requesting a Parks witness besides Graves – project manager Emily Griffiths – hadn’t resulted in a demand for her presence. (Neither side called any witnesses.)
Vancil expressed empathy, saying he’s “very familiar with challenges presented to pro se litigants” (those representing themselves) and acknowledging that it’s “a very convoluted process,” but – it is what it is. On with the testimony.
Anderson alleged that the city DNS – an oft-issued declaration that a full Environmental Impact Statement isn’t required – relied on misrepresentation. She told the backstory of learning about the project via a “little paper” at the park, near which she lives, and which she and her dog visit four times a day.
She spoke of contacting Parks to ask about opening another part of Westcrest – the “grassy area” atop the covered reservoir – as a substitute. Parks initially said it would leave the “small/shy dog area” open, and that it couldn’t use the larger grassy area, citing Seattle Public Utilities ownership as well as a potential $35,000 cost (apparently for a temporary fence).
Anderson contacted SPU herself and was told in email that they could give Parks permission to use that space. (We checked back with Parks post-hearing and they continue to say it’s not a permissible use at a covered reservoir.)
So next she sought quotes for fencing the area she thought would be a better, bigger temporary off-leash area. She said she obtained quotes ranging from $2,100 to $5,100 for what Parks told her would cost $35,000, and that she’d pay the $2,100 herself if that would help. (She acknowledged Parks’ sum likely included some other costs such as reseeding, but didn’t see how that would approach $35,000.)
Anderson said mediation of her appeal was suggested and she was open to it, but Parks declined. In the meantime, she said, she had obtained the plans for the drainage project a few days before the hearing and was alarmed to see the planned substitute off-leash area only a third of an acre in size. With nearly 1,000 dogs a day visiting the OLA in nice weather, she foresees a “huge nuisance” of dogs running on unfenced land when the substitute area is out of room.
She also tried to bring up the lack of available information about the drainage project itself; Vancil told her that while she could do that “to preserve the issue” for reference, he won’t consider it in the appeal because it wasn’t part of her original filing. Anderson countered that it’s hard to appeal information to which you don’t have access. She made it clear she wasn’t challenging the need for the work itself – it’s “wonderful, really good news,” she said – but what she had recently found suggested “it’s a drainage project but no drainage solution.”
Her subsequent pursuit of information through a public-disclosure request led her to the discovery that both Parks and SPU were aware of the drainage challenges 13 years ago, but there is an agreement that she says releases SPU from “future maintenance problems on the reservoir” though the problem seems to involve water flowing from the SPU site to Parks property.
The third issue she raised involved what she considered the plans insufficiently addressing designations for the site such as Environmental Critical Area and blue-heron habitat.
Anderson’s presentation ran less than an hour, but Graves was even briefer. He stressed that Parks’ project will temporarily close the off-leash area, not the rest of Westcrest Park, where dogs on leashes will continue to be welcome.
Graves said the project required a State Environmental Policy Act checklist because it will involve an extensive amount of grading. He suggested the off-leash area’s total closure might only last two weeks (we checked later with Parks spokesperson Rachel Schulkin, who said that they’re still expecting up to six months). The timeline won’t be fully clear until they send the project out to bid, and that won’t happen until they have permits, he said. The full plan wasn’t ready at the time Parks gave notice of the Determination of Non-Significance, he said, because the checklist is usually done at the 60 percent design milestone.
He also offered explanations for the Environmrntal Critical Area exemption, saying “most cities” are empowered to write those, and the heron-habitat designation, noting that there’s a rookery downslope on the Duwamish River that “tends to move around.”
Finally, he said Parks had worked with the advocacy group Citizens for Off-Leash Areas to figure out where off-leash users could be accommodated during the closure, and their “intention was to maximize but not cut off other park” uses.
After less than an hour and a half, Anderson and Graves got to recap their respective contentions. She reiterated that the proposed temporary off-leash area will be too small, and that while the drainage project is much-needed, it needs to be done right. He said Parks sympathizes with dog owners but “a personal inconvenience does not equal a significant environmental impact.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Vancil said he’ll issue his written decision after New Year’s Day. You can watch for it in the online case file here; what’s already linked there includes the official minutes and audio recordings from the hearing this past Monday, and case documents. The Hearing Examiner’s ruling is the city’s final word on a matter; any further challenge would have to be taken to court.