Complex growth rule a recipe for conflict - How much growth is too much?

By Eric Pryne
Seattle Times staff reporter


Snohomish County, WA - 12/26/03 - A year ago King County transportation officials concluded that 1,500 new homes on Novelty Hill east of Redmond already the site of two giant planned communities wouldn't push traffic congestion on local roads beyond the county's adopted limits.

The decision, called a "concurrency" determination, was the first of many county approvals Quadrant needs to build the second phase of its Redmond Ridge development.

For five King County transportation planners, it was the last straw.

They filed a "whistle-blower" complaint with the county ombudsman's office in February, charging that their colleagues in the roads division had used bad assumptions and methodology, and possibly violated the law, in approving the "concurrency certificates" for Quadrant.

Transportation concurrency is one of the key requirements of the state's landmark Growth Management Act. It's a simple concept that is devilishly complex in practice.

Concurrency attempts to link traffic with growth. If a proposed development would push congestion beyond locally adopted limits, the law says, local governments can't issue permits for it.

The whistle-blowers' complaint prompted King County Executive Ron Sims to order an outside investigation. The investigators, from the consulting firm of David Evans and Associates, submitted their report last week.

It concludes there are problems in the county's transportation concurrency program but also offers praise. What impact it will have on the program and on Redmond Ridge isn't clear.

Amy Calderwood, director of the ombudsman's office, said her agency's investigation of the whistle-blowers' charges should be completed late next month.

Criticism, but no 'fatal flaw'

The Evans report says the county's concurrency computer modeling may have favored developers in at least two ways: by overestimating the capacity of parts of the main arterial serving Redmond Ridge and by failing to account for new traffic on King County roads that originates in Snohomish County.

The report criticizes the county repeatedly for poor quality control and documentation of the numbers and assumptions it plugs into its model, problems a 1999 county auditor's report also highlighted.

But the Evans team also says the model appears to forecast real-world conditions reasonably accurately and probably complies with federal guidelines.

The investigators dismiss some of the whistle-blowers' contentions. And they conclude the concurrency model is not "fatally flawed," as the whistle-blowers had charged.

Linda Dougherty, manager of the county's roads division, said she's relieved by that finding. The problems the consultants cite with quality control and documentation are housekeeping matters that can be fixed by reassigning more people to the task, she added, and that will be considered.

But Dougherty denied the county favors developers in concurrency testing. She said she hopes to meet with the Evans team next month to better understand its findings and recommendations.

Two of the five whistle-blowers, Ho-chuan Chen and Hossein Barahimi, said the report confirms the validity of many of their charges. What's more, they said, they believe Evans would have been even more critical if it had the time and resources to investigate more thoroughly.

If the county makes concurrency decisions based on incomplete or inaccurate information, as the report suggests, "that is a fatal flaw," Chen said.

Complicating factors

The complexity in determining concurrency comes in forecasting how much traffic a project would generate, where that traffic would go and how much capacity remains on affected roads to accommodate it.

Here's another complication: Decision-makers must look at the future as well as the present. If there's money committed to fix a bottleneck within six years, the law says, planners must plug that improvement into their modeling.

They also must factor in the impact of other development that has been approved but not built.

The Growth Management Act gives local governments almost unlimited discretion in determining how much additional congestion to permit. One result: In many counties and cities Seattle among them concurrency programs don't restrict growth much, if at all.

But King County's program for unincorporated areas has restricted development across wide swaths of the county. The Metropolitan King County Council, among others, has raised concerns about the impact on the supply and price of new housing, recently approving changes that open more neighborhoods to growth.

Barahimi and Chen, two of the whistle-blowers, said they're not pro- or anti-growth. Their only concern, they said, is with the integrity of the process.

They and the other three whistle-blowers Jim Ishimaru, Sean Wellander and Jim Davis work in the roads unit that developed the county's base travel-forecasting model, the foundation for the concurrency model. Chen is the group's supervisor.

In their February complaint to the county ombudsman, the five said they began objecting more than a year earlier to the way their model was being altered for use in determining concurrency.

"No clear justification or documentation has ever been produced regarding these methods," they wrote.

Doing the math

The whistle-blowers cited the second phase of Redmond Ridge as an example of a concurrency certificate that was issued based on bad data.

It wasn't the first time the county's concurrency program has come under fire. In 1998, a county hearing examiner, ruling on a Sammamish Plateau development, found officials had manipulated data to exaggerate the capacity of roads to absorb more growth. That led to an overhaul of the program.

In its recently released report, David Evans and Associates says the whistle-blowers' contention that concurrency planners overstated the capacity of Northeast Novelty Hill Road, the principal arterial serving Redmond Ridge, is "arguably the most important charge in the complaint, since it is ... most closely related to an important county decision regarding a major development."

The three-mile stretch of Novelty Hill Road running east from Redmond to Redmond Ridge is mostly two lanes. In its report, Evans says concurrency planners assumed completion of an improvement project within six years that would widen most of the road to three lanes adding a two-way left-turn lane and expand it to five lanes at some intersections.

Concurrency officials calculated the afternoon rush-hour capacity of the entire road at 1,750 vehicles per hour per direction. That number is an average for the future three-lane and five-lane sections, the investigators say and "for purposes of concurrency testing, the capacity is appropriate."

But the investigators also say that, in their opinion, the three-lane sections won't accommodate 1,750 cars an hour. Had the lower capacity of those segments not been folded in with the higher-capacity five-lane segments, Evans concludes, the second phase of Redmond Ridge wouldn't have passed its concurrency test.

The averaging also might have violated the county's concurrency law, the investigators say. But Dougherty, the county roads manager, said the Prosecutor's Office has advised transportation officials that use of the 1,750-vehicle capacity number is legal.

Since the concurrency certificates were issued, Quadrant has downsized the second phase of Redmond Ridge to 800 homes. Still, Joseph Elfelt, of Friends of the Law, the Redmond group that has been fighting Redmond Ridge for a decade, said the investigators' findings on Novelty Hill Road provide fodder for a possible appeal.

The Evans report concludes the concurrency model includes road-improvement projects that aren't funded and shouldn't have been incorporated. Those projects should be deleted from the model, the investigators say, but the effect on Redmond Ridge concurrency testing "is likely minor."

The report also rejects the whistle-blowers' charges that changes in the model to Novelty Hill Road's length and projected traffic speeds were unjustified and may have affected the tests' outcome.

Snohomish County effect

But Evans does confirm the whistle-blowers' contention that the concurrency model doesn't account for recent or projected growth in Snohomish County traffic on King County roads.

"The cumulative effect of ignoring potential increases in background traffic could result in concurrency tests more favorable to developers," the investigators say. They urge the county to find a way to incorporate it.

Dougherty said Snohomish County traffic growth wasn't included in the model because officials in that county couldn't provide needed information. In a 2000 e-mail, a county concurrency planner noted an apparent surge in traffic from Snohomish County on Novelty Hill Road.

But Dougherty said more recent traffic studies suggest Snohomish County contributes little traffic to the road. Including it probably wouldn't have affected the concurrency determination for the second phase of Redmond Ridge, she said.

Victor Salemann, Evans' principal investigator, said his team didn't look into whether the omission helped the development pass the test. It didn't rerun the model itself, he said.

It should have, Chen and Barahimi said, to determine the cumulative impact of all the omissions and changes concurrency officials made. "They should be held accountable for what they have done," Barahimi said.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com


 

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