Council rejects Coval development, with conditions

The City Council unanimously rejected a proposal to build 18 homes on the site of the Coval property, to a room full of applause Monday night.


“I haven't seen so much turmoil over a project in 40 years,” said Robert Thorpe long-time Mercer Island resident after the council's decision. Thorpe worked on the 1968-69 comprehensive plan. “Thank you for your wisdom and service.”


The developer, a Canadian firm called MI 84th Limited Partnership, is still able to appeal the city's determination or to bring back a revised application. Original renderings proposed a long plat of houses ranging in size from 10,000 sq. ft. to 12,000 sq. ft. The existing development would raze 206 of the more than 300 trees on site.


The project so hit a nerve among Islanders that before opening the closed public hearing, councilmembers recounted the many times they'd been approached by neighbors in the grocery store and at community events, decrying it as out of sync with the rest of the city. The Coval house has been featured on HGTV”s “Million Dollar Homes” and has its own website. Some regard it as an iconic piece of Island history.


The ‘closed public hearing’ meant that the Council could only consider the record established so far by the Planning Commission. Yet the Council made an arrangement that allowed both sides 20 minutes to speak. After brief discussion councilmember Dan Grausz outlined several land use regulations that the proposal didn't comply with. In their motion, council asked for protection of more trees, a reconsideration of plot layout relative to critical areas and greater financial reassurances if there are adverse stormwater effects. Council also said the project didn't make provisions enough for drainage impacts, street safety or open areas.


“What occurs to me as I think about this piece of property...[nobody has said] don't develop it. Let's just be clever or smart about how to do it,” said Mayor Bruce Bassett, giving as an example a development built around the existing indoor pool.


In an earlier meeting, the planning commission recommended that city council approve the long plat in a 4-2 vote. Attorney Jay Derr, who represents the applicant, pointed to that determination, firmly arguing that the project met, even exceeded city code: “We don't believe that's the way the rule of law works. In land use, once the city adopts codes, then the project must be measured against that requirement.”


Derr said that when concerns were raised about road safety, the applicant agreed to expand the plat's internal street from 20 to 26 feet and pledged a $50,000 donation to invest in community improvements. Derr also noted that once initial trees on the site were cleared for construction, future homeowners wouldn't be able to cut down vegetation without going to the city, regulation stricter than what the city code currently dictates.


After Monday’s meeting Derr said that he worried a lot of the characterization of the project was based on incomplete or misinformation. He also noted that representatives of the development have met with neighbors in the past and will continue to do so when  plans firm up.


“My clients were surprised by council’s decision and disappointed that even though we presented a plat that satisfies code requirements,” said Derr, “council decided it was looking for something different.”


Derr said the applicant will wait for council to expand on last Monday’s decision before responding.


Neighbors concerns meanwhile range from the character of the plat to increases in traffic and stormwater runoff.


Though council ultimately rejected the plat, councilmembers tempered the news with the knowledge that the development would likely proceed, but scaled back.


“The fact, is the property is sold and it's able to be developed into 18 properties, even 19 or 20 according to our own city code,” said councilmember Jane Brahm. “So I believe we need to be realistic. Now it's our charge to figure out how we can best protect the interests of neighbors and Mercer Island as a whole, while allowing the development our own codes allow. I have real concerns about certain aspects of the property but I think for me the best process is to add some conditions to the development of the property.”

The city council agenda documents are available here

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