Snoqualmie City Council has approved a conditional use permit for Panorama Apartments LLC to build five four-story buildings as part of its affordable housing project on Snoqualmie Ridge 2.
The decision came at a March 20 appeal hearing during which two Snoqualmie citizens challenged a hearing examiner ruling that approved the conditional use permit.
Panorama Apartments has proposed a multi-family affordable housing development for parcel S-20 on the south end of SR2, just north of the Snoqualmie Valley Hospital. Current design plans include 11 apartment buildings with 191 multi-family apartment units, a leasing office, as well as indoor and outdoor recreation space.
The developer is requesting a fourth story be built on the five buildings on the lowest elevation of the sloped property. Because the parcel is on a 14 percent slope, none of the fourth story buildings will have a higher elevation than any of the three story buildings, they claim.
That S-20 parcel, Snoqualmie community development director Mark Hofman said, was identified for single or multi-family housing in the SR2’s Mixed Use Final Plan in 2004 and was identified as land that could be used to meet the need of affordable housing in the city.
In 2017, Panorama Apartments submitted a general land use application to the city that detailed four elements to be approved for development of the parcel. One of those elements was a conditional use permit to authorize the building of a fourth story on five of the 11 buildings in the proposal.
As part of Snoqualmie municipal code, a hearing examiner makes decisions on conditional use permit applications, Hofman said. In hearing examiner Gary McLean’s initial decision, the conditional use permit was awarded to the Panorama Apartments. However, the city received requests to appeal the decision from citizens.
Snoqualmie residents Holly Fletcher and Adam Babcock each submitted an appeal to reverse the McLean’s decision. Fletcher first appealed the decision to award the conditional use permit at public hearings on Nov. 8 and 16, 2017.
On Jan. 23, McLean released a followup decision denying the appeal. Fletcher and Babcock both appealed this second decision and a hearing for the second appeal was set for March 20.
The appeal hearing was to determine if section 4.6.1 of the Mixed Use Final Plan Development Agreement was violated and if the hearing examiner’s criteria listed in Snoqualmie municipal code was followed.
Section 4.6.1 states that the permit may be requested if the proposal is for a site where the topography would lend itself to taller development because the buildings with additional stories would not appear higher than the three story structures.
Snoqualmie council heard arguments from Fletcher, Babcock and Panorama Apartment representatives, and were tasked with determining if the examiner erred in his decision on the conditional use permit.
Fletcher argued that the scale of the project is beyond what was required and it did not fit the character or scale of the city. She continued by stating that with the conditional use permit to build a fourth story, the intent of the developers is to include four- and five- bedroom units — which she says is contrary to the development agreement that states affordable housing rental units may include studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom units.
Fletcher also stated that with the affordable housing obligation that is part of the SR2 development, the obligation could be fulfilled with 122 units instead of the 191 that are proposed. Fletcher concluded her arguments by stating that the a larger development with the conditional use permit will lead to more traffic at the I-90 interchange and that the school district would not be able to handle the influx of students.
Babcock claimed that the sight line analysis of the proposal was done incorrectly. He said the sight lines were recorded from a higher elevation than they should have been and at a location just outside of the site to make the buildings seem shorter than they actually would be.
Andy Murphy, a representative of Panorama Apartments, rebutted the appellants’ arguments by stating that they did not meet the high burden of showing the decision was erroneous. He also reminded council that the hearing was to consider a very narrow review of the addition of four stories to five buildings and that much of the arguments previously heard were beyond the scope of the hearing.
In addressing Babcock’s argument, Murphy explained that the elevation plan submitted to the hearing examiner shows that they have met the requirements. Due to the sloping topography of the parcel, none of the four-story buildings will be taller than the three-story buildings at the higher end of the area, which meets the requirements of the permit. Murphy said this evidence alone is enough to find that the criteria being challenged is satisfied and the hearing examiner’s decision is not erroneous.
Due to retaining walls along the sides of each building, Murphy said that even if people were able to see through the buildings at the top of the slope, the fourth story buildings would still appear to be three stories tall.
He also addressed some of the other arguments made by the appellants including traffic, bedroom size and the need for affordable housing. Murphy said that both the applicant’s and the city’s third-party traffic experts said that the addition of a fourth story would not have any traffic impact. Traffic analysis is based on unit numbers inside a building, not how tall they are, he said. The hearing examiner found that the traffic studies were conducted in a scientifically acceptable manner and there was no contradictory evidence on the record.
In addition, the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the SR2 development in 2004 approved development of up to 2,150 residential units and was built to allow for 1,850 units. SR2 will still be well below that cap even with the full build out of the affordable housing project, Murphy said.
Bedroom size, Murphy said, is not governed by the permit and was outside the scope of the hearing. Any impacts, he explained, were measured by unit number not number of individual bedrooms. He also addressed Fletcher’s comment about meeting the affordable housing obligation by stating that the number of affordable housing units are governed by the minor modification that has been finalized and can’t be addressed through the permit hearing. He also stated that in the approval of SR2, affordable housing was one of the explicit objectives of SR2 and “it is in the public’s best interest to provide more than the bare minimum of affordable housing.”
After additional discussion, the council unanimously voted to affirm the hearing examiner’s decision. Council member Sean Sundwall did acknowledge the concerns of the appellants, but said that because of the narrow focus of the hearing, some of the comments could not be part of the decision.
“I share some of the concerns that Mr. Babcock and Mrs. Fletcher have stated here, but given the very, very narrow grounds that we have to rule on tonight, a lot of that can’t factor into my decision,” Sundwall said. “The good news I think is, even if this is approved as we go through design review I think there are opportunities to make sure that some of the issues that have been brought up by Holly and Adam can be addressed. I’m not suggesting it’s going to eliminate a fourth floor, but I do think there are opportunities to make sure that this does fit as perfectly as possible with the look and feel of our community.”
For additional information on the March 20 hearing, the video recording has been uploaded to the city’s official YouTube channel. Other documents and history of of the project are available on the city’s website under the Smart Growth tab.