They talked to each other and they talked past each other, but more than anything they talked over each other.
A hearing concerning the fate of an authorized encampment in Interbay went wildly off the rails last week as the appellant and hearing examiner sparred over process and tone while camp residents watched on in bemused silence.
The substance of the hearing revolved around plans to expand Tiny Cabin Safe Harbor — formerly Tent City 5 — from roughly 12,000 square feet to 18,000 square feet of the Port of Seattle’s Tsubota property in Interbay.
William Mills, representing the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), testified that the application submitted by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) that he reviewed met the requirements for a temporary-use permit that allows the camp to stay on the site for six months.
Safe and Affordable Seattle, represented by Magnolia resident Elizabeth Campbell, challenged the plan on environmental grounds. Of the six points raised in the original appeal, only one and a half withstood the city’s motion to dismiss. Those regarded a challenge to the review of cumulative impacts on the site and the adequacy of information gathered regarding the impacts of air pollution, noise and transportation issues on residents.
At least, those were the points she was supposed to raise.
After stating her credentials — 60 years in Seattle, 30 in Magnolia, master’s degree in urban planning with a concentration in transportation and land use — Campbell launched into an argument with the hearing examiner rather than her opening statement.
“The thing is, I’m not sure what evidence you’re even going to allow me to enter, and the other part of the problem is that you just now ruled on this so it was impossible — as I noted in my motion — to prepare and bring something to say here. This is what I’m submitting…” Campbell began.
“Ms. Campbell, this is not an opening statement,” Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil interjected.
It was the first of many attempts by Vancil to keep the hearing on course, although he concluded early on that Campbell had “a full lack of understanding of what this is.”
“Do you know what you’re doing here today?” Vancil asked. “Are you prepared to proceed with your case or not?”
“I am. I’m talking to you about it,” Campbell said.
“All you’ve told us is that you’re not ready and you don’t know what you’re doing,” Vancil said.
This became a three-step rhetorical dance that would consume much of the morning — Campbell beginning a point, Vancil intervening on procedural grounds followed by crosstalk, like a rejected Abbot and Costello sketch on quasi-judicial rulings.
After a particularly cutting round of back-and-forth over the use of the word “objection” in the context of both the hearing and cross examination, Vancil threatened to suspend the hearing.
“I think you should just continue it and I’m going to ask for a different hearing examiner,” Campbell said. “I’m going to make the objection that you’re badgering one of the appellants … you’re being abusive and another hearing examiner should be appointed because you know you’re in over your head in how you’re reacting.”
Beyond the testy exchanges, there were substantive issues on the table: an environmental appeal and the lives of between 50 and 60 current camp occupants.
Campbell’s concerns centered on environmental factors around the encampment that she claims should have been part of the SEPA review. Those include traffic down 15th Avenue West, a busy arterial road that she believes could put children and pets at risk and cause noise and air pollution that could be unhealthy for the residents.
Mills testified later that he had consulted with transit and noise experts within his department who found that access to and from the site was adequate and that the noise levels were within code limits for that zone. He also consulted with a staff person at the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency about air quality.
Campbell also objected to the “garden sheds” on the site rather than tents allowed under the permit. Tiny houses, the preferred nomenclature, are regulated as tents.
The rules around encampment permits are complicated.
There are, in effect, two ways for the city to permit an encampment. The first is through a code section that authorizes up to three transitional encampments and the second is through the temporary-use permit (TUP). There are other legal encampments, such as those on religious land, which don’t require city permits.
The original incarnation of Tent City 5 was set up farther north on 15th Avenue West. Under the city’s own rules, the encampment could stay in that location for one year with one year’s extension. As 2017 came to a close, the city and the camp struggled to find an alternative location until a September 2017 decision by the Port of Seattle to enter into a lease with the city for a nominal fee.
Tent City 5 appeared to be saved.
At the end of October 2017, Campbell filed a case in King County Superior Court claiming many of the same objections. However, the camp originally constrained itself to under 12,000 square feet which is under the threshold for SEPA review in that zone. The camp opened using four-week temporary use permits.
The permit under appeal is a TUP that allows the camp to grow to 18,000 square feet. The camp will accommodate more residents and amenities, said Sharon Lee, executive director of LIHI.
“What’s really important to us moving ahead is we get to expand and put more tiny houses and also put in showers and laundry and restrooms,” Lee said, describing the delay as a hardship for the residents.
For the record, Tiny Cabin Safe Harbor residents say that Campbell has never approached them about their living conditions. One suggested suing her over her continued harassment of the camp.
Vancil has not yet issued an order on the hearing, and any decision he makes can be appealed to the Superior Court where Campbell said she had more experience.
Superior Court is the venue that Campbell and neighbors used to fight off an affordable housing complex slated for the Fort Lawton property in Discovery Park a decade ago. The city was forced to go back and do a full environmental workup that looked at alternative uses for the property. That review has also been appealed by Campbell, although that appeal appeared to be foundering as of Oct. 30 reported Erica C. Barnett.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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