Heidi Wills and Charlie Chong both tell a story about flying over the Seattle area.
Wills tells a sad tale of a Sierra Club - sponsored flyover where she saw new development sprawling to the foot of the Cascade Mountains. Chong tells the happier story of seeing Seattle from the air and being struck by the dominating presence of single-family neighborhoods.
During this campaign for City Council position 7, former council member Chong and Wills, an aide to King County Executive Ron Sims, have often found themselves on opposite sides of the growth fence.
Chong is an unreconstructed neighborhood activist who talks about limiting growth and protecting Seattle's quality of life. He's pushing an ambitious proposal to form neighborhood review boards that would control local design and land use decisions. On most questions relating to relaxing regulations and promoting development, his answer is a firm no.
Wills is a new-breed environmentalist who can't stop talking about the interconnections between various policies. To her mind, increased housing density equals more transit ridership equals less traffic congestion equals less air pollution. It's reminiscent of the famous six degrees of separation: In discussing any growth-related topic, Wills is never more than six transitions away from reiterating the need for more east-west bus routes and bike lanes.
For a couple of folks who have spent most of their adult lives as government employees, Chong and Wills couldn't be more different in their attitude toward the role of the public sector in problem-solving. The 31-year-old executive department aide Wills exudes a wide-eyed enthusiasm for the possibilities of government programs; the 72-year-old retired federal bureaucrat Chong casts a skeptical eye on their results.
It's up to the candidates to sell their program to you, the voter. And now, on to the main event. . . .
Seattle policy makers have always been in love with the concept of adding accessory dwelling units to single-family homes. ADUs, more commonly known as mother- in-law apartments, are seen as a way to greatly increase Seattle's density while preserving its single-family character. Unfortunately, Seattle homeowners haven't cooperated. Few ADUs have been built since they were legalized in the early 1990s. Since then, the council has twice relaxed the rules regarding ceiling heights, unit size, and entrances.
Right now, only three significant potential revisions remain. The council could legalize detached ADUs (such as units built over garages), eliminate all parking requirements, or drop the rule that only a live-in homeowner can operate an ADU.
Chong says he'd let neighborhoods themselves decide about detached ADUs, but favors keeping parking requirements and the owner-occupancy rule. If homeowners have to live in the same house, he says, "they're much more careful who they rent to."
Wills wants to allow detached ADUs and would favor eliminating parking requirements for units near major transit routes. As for eliminating or relaxing the owner-occupancy requirement, she says she'd support "looking into that further."
Railing about transit
The Sound Transit light rail line is being touted as one antidote to Seattle's growing traffic congestion problems, but the proposed rail route has been the target of much criticism. Here's an issue which shows major differences between the two candidates: Imagine Heidi in a construction hard hat and Charlie pondering the drawing board.
"First and foremost, we need to move forward," Wills says of the light rail plan. "We don't have a lot of time to play around." She would favor surface tracks in the Rainier Valley, in conjunction with $50 million in neighborhood mitigation. Wills wants the system—now planned for Sea-Tac Airport to the University District—to extend to Northgate, but wants the state to pay for that portion of the line (a concept that King County Council member Rob McKenna last week called "a pipe dream"). She is concerned that continued debate about major changes in the light rail plan will cause Sound Transit to miss a mid-November deadline to obtain $80 million in federal funding.
Forget the deadline, replies Chong. "The federal money isn't that much and it isn't that important. What's important is to have something that will work." Chong says he's in the unusual position of cheerleading for his old political rival, Mayor Paul Schell. He backs the mayor's call for redesigning the system to free up money for an extension to Northgate and for considering alternatives to routing the light rail through the Rainier Valley, where some residents would prefer express buses to an above-ground system.
Charlie's board game
Chong proposes that the city form land use and design boards for individual neighborhoods based on the 37 neighborhood planning districts. Their members would be elected by the residents of the neighborhoods they serve "and would be subject to recall," he adds. Chong argues that the current design review boards are stacked with architects and planners, who tend to treat each other's projects with professional deference.
Under this system, the City Council would function as an appeals board, says Chong. "Let the council be the final word because they're elected to do that."
A skeptical observation: It's far from proven that the council is dying to get back into the land use business (procedural land use appeals to council were eliminated several years ago), so we'll see if Chong can get five votes for this complex undertaking. However, most every council candidate has given lip service to tailoring some land use rules to neighborhood needs, but Chong is the first to propose any mechanism to accomplish that.
Wills says she has heard little about Chong's land use proposal on the campaign trail, so she declined to comment on it.
Heidi speaks volumes
A few gems from the Wills growth archives: Did you know that Seattle residents spent 127 percent more time stuck in traffic in the 1990s than in the 1980s? Or that the Sierra Club recently identified Seattle as the 7th most sprawl-threatened US city? Did you realize if we fund the amenities identified in the neighborhood plans, it will enhance the quality of neighborhoods and attract more families to the area, thus adding to the tax base?
Call it "Populist Park"
Chong suggests that local governments fund a wide, sprawl-stopping greenbelt of public land east of Bellevue. "What I'm proposing is that we invest as much [in land acquisition] as it costs to build one sports stadium and see what that gets us," he says.
The lightning round
Local governments recently unveiled a transfer of development rights program under which developers preserve rural land in exchange for adding extra floors on their downtown condo towers. Is this a good concept? Yes, says Wills. "I think it's a great idea—it allows us to meet many community objectives." No, says Chong, if you want to preserve farmland, buy it—as the county has done for many years. "I am for preserving farmland, but not enriching developers while we do it."
Would you support upzoning areas around light rail stops? Sure, says Heidi, who waxes rhapsodic about transit-oriented development (or TOD, as the insiders say). "I think you should wait until you have transit stations," quips Charlie.
What about that cheap car tab state Initiative 695, which politicians say will blow away transit budgets statewide? Charlie, who has publicly stated that he hopes the initiative will turn out the more infrequent voters who often support him, is uncharacteristically coy. "I'll let the people decide," he says neutrally. Heidi replies that defeating I-695 is a major priority of hers. "There's no question that $100 million of transportation services would be cut at Metro" if the measure is approved, she says. "That represents a quarter of the transit routes in Seattle alone." By not taking a position on the measure, Charlie's "acting like a politician," she charges.
Whether Seattleites should welcome growth and seek to shape it in a positive manner (Wills) or allow it warily and under strict conditions (Chong) is a matter that could dictate your vote in this race. As construction cranes tower overhead and traffic backs up during rush hour, you can use that extra quality time to decide which approach you prefer.