Thad Curtz’s letter to the editor of the Olympian, published in this morning’s paper was composed of errant facts, unfair qualifications, and a misleading conclusion.
After citing quantitative facts about turnout at the planning commission hearing being numerically in favor of opposing the rezone, Curtz concluded that “people don't want the Olympia City Council to give Triway a big tax break.”
First, an incorrect fact: this rezone decision has nothing to do with giving tax breaks. This abatement is not unique to this project or rezone. All downtown multi-family housing is getting a tax break: low income housing has a permanent tax abatement; low cost housing is enjoying a 12-year abatement; and market-rate housing qualifies for an 8-year abatement. The State Legislature adopted this policy enabling cities to use abatements in recognition of the high cost of housing development.
The city council passed this abatement years ago, and any downtown housing project proposed would qualify for it. So, unless the goal is to impede any and all housing in the urban core in order to keep these abatements from serving their purpose (including low income housing), this is not a valid reason to reject this rezone. And it has nothing to do with the rezone decision faced by the council.
Second, fairness: Curtz seemingly discredits the support that Triway was able to turn out at the Planning Commission meeting by parenthetically noting that about “one-third of Triway's support came from the development community — real estate brokers, builders, surveyors, engineers, loan officers, building materials suppliers, and so on.” Should these people not have equal say because they work in the development and construction industries? Should their support be discounted in some way? Aren’t these people members of the community who vote, pay taxes, and hold jobs? These are precisely the people I would expect to show up in support. To attempt to discredit their opinion is not a fair approach to this debate.
Third, and most important: Mr. Curtz’s argument completely ignores the demonstrable reality that public hearings on land use issues in America are wrought with problems in that they do not attract a representative cross section of the community.
In an essay published last month, Harvard School of Design professor Matthew J. Kieffer argued that the public hearings process for land use issues in America inevitably attracts those opposed to development, and that those who are in favor of development, or more commonly, those who are indifferent to development, by human nature, tend to stay home. “Public hearings,” he wrote, “become forums for the chronically aggrieved; in an increasingly fragmented culture, they are what pass for community.”
Most of the people I know - primarily people in their 30s and 40s with children in the school system - are in favor of smart growth, urban density, improving the tax base, and making tradeoffs for the good of downtown and the surrounding environment, which is to say, they are in favor of passing this rezone and building condos on the isthmus. But most of these people did not show up to the planning commission meeting. Why? Because they were at home with their families after a long day of work trying to balance the responsibilities of life in the twenty-first century. Many citizens of Olympia do not have the luxury of time to show up simply to support proposed development, let alone dedicate a majority of their time to ensuring it happens. This is true anywhere in America and Olympia is no different.
Contrary to what Curtz’s LTE strongly implies, hearings are not physical referendums for the community. Private land use issues – precisely because they will always face inordinate amounts of public opposition - must be decided by our elected officials. We, as the citizens who voted our city council into office, must trust their leadership skills and unique perspective to make the best decision for the community as a whole.