Ending what the City Council called a months-long saga, Bellevue unanimously approved changes to the city’s land use code Monday night. Dozens of residents showed up for the discussion and vote, which will determine setbacks, the permitting process and design guidelines for the future East Link light rail project.
“I think that this is a great outcome,” said Councilmember John Chelminiak, echoing colleague sentiment. “A week ago…we were looking at potential for very significant delays in the project…As of tonight we got to a place where the project is back on schedule and back working right, and that’s a great outcome.”
Meetings regarding the overlay began in October, but the council closed the vote Monday night feeling confidently on track after significant project delays were predicted even just a week ago. In tandem with that goal, Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl presented a letter to the council, vowing to request early acquisition of properties along the alignment, within 60 days of the City Council and Sound Transit’s approval of the final alignment.
“I certainly understand property owners’ trepidations about going through such a process, and I commit that Sound Transit staff and consultants will work in earnest, fairly and expeditiously, with all property owners throughout the acquisition process,” reads the letter.
That was a particularly important victory for residential neighborhoods, said Joe Rossman of Building a Better Bellevue, in part because it will maintain property values.
“[Sound Transit] has never done this before and it runs counter to what had been their plan,” said Rossman. “I know from discussion…there was no intention of beginning the residential property purchases until well into 2015. Now they have to start the process by middle of next year, and to have it well underway, immediately for everyone.”
Revisions to the overlay were made right up until Sunday night and because of the exhaustive back-and-forth, city staff had to color-code packets of the amendment alternatives for Monday’s vote.
The permitting process, one of the more contentious topics throughout overlay discussions, was settled with the council agreeing to allow ST to apply for permits after beginning the appraisal process. That would allow for a more immediate outcome than had been discussed in a draft last week, where permits couldn’t be applied for until condemnation had been initiated. ST said it expects to apply for its first permit in summer or early fall of this year.
Other concerns, like the maintenance of buffers, were clarified and built upon. Under the amendment changes, ST would be responsible for upkeep unless property owners showed interest themselves. The citizens’ advisory committee (CAC) was also defined with a wide scope of authority. And Councilmember Kevin Wallace shared a short presentation analyzing setbacks and buffer depths. After looking at arterials and neighborhoods throughout Bellevue, he said that 30-foot buffers and 60-foot setbacks weren’t a new concept for the city, cementing the importance of such standards for property owners affected by East Link.
“What we’ve done tonight is accelerated the acquisition of residential properties for people who say they’re stuck – and they are stuck – and they want to be able to move on as quickly as possible,” said Councilmember Claudia Balducci. “We’ve made some good edits here tonight that will actually meet our goal of what council is trying to do, better than what we had before…It provides better separation and certainty for homeowners.”
If the project advances as expected, the council’s next hurdle – approving the alignment – should take place in April.
“We were able to tackle some challenging issues,” said Mayor Conrad Lee as the meeting drew to a close, “while balancing protection of our neighborhoods with the implementation of this regional project.”