Irate Eastside activists have long charged that the county's permitting methods are biased in favor of housing developers. Now the top financial watchdog in Washington state, Auditor Brian Sonntag, may start an investigation of his own. Last week, Sonntag told Seattle Weekly that he has reviewed citizen complaints and is considering an audit of the county's growth-management practices.
Sonntag's move would represent a major victory for two Eastside activist groups, known as Friends of the Law and the Coalition for Public Trust, who have spent the better part of this past year haranguing county officials, and anyone else who will listen, with their claim that the county Transportation Department has significantly underestimated traffic effects of new housing developments.
The citizen groups have taken issue with traffic forecasts used in the approval of Northridge and Blakely Ridge, two giant Weyerhaeuser developments in Redmond now under construction. In 1995, these projects received their so-called "traffic concurrency" certificates. "Concurrency" represents the county's determination that the new houses will not overload local roads.
The Northridge opponents sifted through the county's forecasts and found them spuriously low—in some cases lower than even present-day traffic. County officials concede there was a mistake in the initial concurrency run, but say that when corrected for that mistake, the projects still pass. The validity of the county's concurrency test has since become a major issue in the appeal of two more large Eastside housing developments.
Last July, King County Council member Brian Derdowski forwarded the activists' charges to the auditor. "I personally believe the county's concurrency system is full of intentional and unintentional loopholes and is a complete failure at its job of metering growth," Derdowski said last week. "Sonntag has a reputation for being strong-minded, independent, and honest. He is uniquely positioned" to perform an impartial analysis.
Bill Hoffman, head of King County Transportation Planning, says his office has supplied the auditor's staff with data and information on Northridge and Blakely Ridge. But he downplays the importance of the concurrency certificate, arguing that fees and traffic mitigation required of Weyerhaeuser are spelled out in separate "developer agreements," and are tied to actual traffic counts, not the county's much-maligned computer forecasting model. Meantime, Prosecutor Norm Maleng's staff is preparing to look into the question of what authority the state auditor has to be scrutinizing the county's growth-management techniques. The auditor, after all, is primarily concerned with financial issues.
But Ivan Dansereau of the state auditor's office notes that "we have a wide scope. We render opinions on financial statements, but also audit for compliance with local laws." The overall mission, he says, is "making sure public assets are safeguarded." Sonntag says he found the Northridge allegations "important enough" that he has taken them to the state attorney general for review "to see what of these issues, if anything, falls within our jurisdiction." A decision is expected any day now.