The Mercer Island City Council at its Oct. 15 meeting reviewed planning commission recommendations for amendments to the city’s comprehensive plan.
It was the first reading and the document will come back to the council after further staff revision.
An informative presentation and overview of the amendments was given by Evan Maxim, community planning and development director, and Tiffin Goodman, chair of the planning commission.
The council then asked questions and discussed language and policy possibilities at length. Feedback and desired changes were handed back to the planning commission and staff who will make revisions.
Overall, council members seemed to want language in the various amendments to be less specific and mandating. Rather, they would like to see the comprehensive plan remain more aspirational and goal oriented. Then the council can delve into specific decisions — especially in regards to staffing or spending — in later discussions.
The presentation outlined the four amendments that were recommended: Remove the town center sub area designations and map from the land use element; establish goals and policies to prevent and mitigate climate change impacts; develop goals and policies supporting economic development on Mercer Island; create goals and policies supporting the establishment of multimodal levels of service.
First, the removal of a map, and some town center language, was suggested because some of the language is duplicative of city code and to include it in the comprehensive plan would be too regulatory, they said.
Some council members expressed being against this change because it could indirectly remove some limitations from building code revision procedures, such as time restrictions and waiting periods related to changing the heights of buildings.
The second recommendation was related to city climate strategies and suggested the updating of background text that explains previous sustainability engagement until now, and also updating language to support existing programs and support expanding programs.
The amendment outlined several recommended policies that would further the city’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also highlighted working with regional partners on this effort, including the King County Cities Climate Collaboration.
Council members expressed surprise at how thoroughly that section was addressed, and asked how it got to be so long and so specific.
“These policies are really quite robust and that’s largely because of the critical timeframe we have to make a significant societal change which could mitigate climate change impacts,” Goodman said.
Maxim said it is a topic that commission members are passionate about and for which the most public input was gathered.
“Input received from community and passion felt by each commission member resulted in a fairly extensive piece of work,” he said.
Council requested upleveling of language in the section to be less specific and more aspirational at a higher level. The council recommended it go back to the planning commission as well as staff and possibly the sustainability committee.
The third amendment was related to the city’s goal of designing an economic development plan and addressed the current placeholder for a plan. The planning commission recommended a new policy for a community-based approach to develop an economic development strategy.
That suggested policy reads, “engage residents, community organizations and businesses in a collaborative effort to establish a strategy for Mercer Island economic development.”
Goodman said there is an understanding among planning commission members that, “a broader economic strategy would be a great benefit to the city for numerous reasons including financial resilience and an ability to offer more services to residents and employees.”
“We believe this policy provides a good start to asserting the importance of this topic but acknowledge further work on this topic is needed, whether through the comprehensive plan or through a different process,” she said.
Council members also expressed that the topic would require additional planning, perhaps via a planning session or even involving the hiring of an outside professional consultant.
The fourth amendment regarded multimodal transportation and policies supporting a level of service for pedestrian, bike, and other non motorized methods of transportation.
Of particular priority was a focus on transit connections and safety around local schools.
“Planning for a safe, predictable and well maintained network turned out to be a pretty big need, especially around schools,” Goodman said. “It’s not only a safety issue, but it’s a quality of life issue, especially for our kids. On a personal note, I bike to school with my kids fairly often. Although we have a system out there down, there are clearly deficiencies.”
The suggested policies in the fourth amendment call for the establishment of a level of service program for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit modes. There would also be a funding mechanism to help leverage dollars for non motorized and active transportation improvements. Those would serve as guidelines for prioritizing future projects.
Council members said they would like to learn more, perhaps drawing from other jurisdictions and best practices, and again had some suggestions for language tweaks and edits. The council wants to establish a goal to create a plan for those programs.
“I’m intrigued because I think we know first of all that there’s no silver bullet when it comes to traffic congestion, et cetera. But what we do know is that the more people who can walk and safely cycle, and feel that they have facilities that are appropriate to their needs, and encourage that use would be helpful,” Mayor Debbie Bertlin said. “I actually would like to see this move forward. I think there’s more work to be done. I agree that I’d like to understand more from some other cities and best practices.”
Some community members spoke about the recommended amendments during public comment. Some had expressed frustration and concerns of transparency at receiving a 400-page agenda packet (that included the amendments and also the Aubrey Davis Park draft master plan) less than a week before the meeting, and not having enough time to thoroughly read it.
One resident who spoke about city economic development was Victor Raisys, co-owner of Island Books. He asserted that the city is not currently undergoing any economic development efforts, so it would be dishonest to use the word “continue” when amending that part of the plan.
He said there is no economic development plan currently, especially compared to other cities. Edmonds has a 22-page economic development element in its comprehensive plan, and Sammamish a 32-page strategy. Kirkland has a website devoted to economic development and Issaquah has a whole department with a staff of four.
He pointed out that the Mercer Island comprehensive plan currently devotes a half page to the subject, but meanwhile the sustainability portion gets six pages.
“This speaks volumes in terms of the city’s commitment to economic development,” he said. “While I too support sustainability, I’ll ask you to consider what it does do to your sustainability agenda when island residents will need to leave the island for basic necessities like a hammer, a last minute toy for a birthday party, a hostess gift or even a book because there are no longer businesses on the island providing those goods and services.”
He also echoed the suggestion of bringing in an expert to help develop an economic development strategy.
“I’ve previously watched the city use consultants and experts for a variety of different projects. In this case, it seems to me that we would want to engage with professionals and experts who have successfully done this for other cities of our size and demographics,” he said. “If we’re going to amend the economic development of the comp plan to include engaging stakeholders, we should also include a section that includes engaging the professionals and experts in economic development.”
The recommendations for amendments are going back to the planning commission and city staff for further revision and to apply the council feedback that was given.
A second reading will come before council soon. The goal is to approve and make amendments to the comprehensive plan by the end of the calendar year.