A photo of people sitting in a city council chamber.
The Houghton Community Council holds veto power over land use decisions in its jurisdictions, which would impact Kirkland's Comprehensive Plan update, unless legislation to immediately sunset the community council is passed. (Credit: Houghton Community Council)

Update – the Washington State Senate passed HB 1769 without any amendments, so the legislation will advance for Governor Jay Inslee’s signature. Read on to learn more about how the community councils have operated, and in particular, what it was like to be a fly-on-the-wall at what will likely be Houghton Community Council’s last — or next to last — meeting.

This week the Washington State Legislature will bring to the senate floor HB 1769, a bill to sunset the Houghton (Kirkland) and East Bellevue Community Councils. The community councils were instituted in the late 1960s after their jurisdictions were annexed into the cities of Kirkland and Bellevue. Since then the community councils have held veto power over land use planning within their designated areas, which has allowed them to wield influence over zoning.

It has also led to challenging and costly situations for the cities in which they are located, including when the East Bellevue Community Council blocked parking reforms in their jurisdiction, a move that ran afoul of state law and resulted in $40,000 in legal fees for the City of Bellevue. As it currently stands, it is unknown exactly when HB 1769 will go up for consideration, but the date will need to be sometime before Friday, March 4th.

HB 1769 passed the House on a 71-27 vote, with Rep. My-Linh Thai (D – 41st Legislative District, Bellevue) emerging as the only elected representative from the impacted area voting against the bill with remaining opposition came from Republicans residing in other areas of the state. However, some advocates for preserving the community councils have begun to paint the bill as a partisan issue in an effort to either defeat the bill or amend it so that sunsetting is not immediately put into effect. While the idea of pushing back the date of their dissolution might seem like a feasible compromise, it could actually have cascading consequences for major land use decisions in both Kirkland and Bellevue.

Support for HB 1769 from unexpected backers

Among those who live in the areas impacted by the community councils, support remains strong across the political divide. Earlier this year, the Kirkland City Council voted unanimously to support HB 1769. The bill was also endorsed by Jennifer Robertson, a conservative member of Bellevue’s City Council, and Bellevue Mayor Lynne Robinson, a moderate.

Recently Northwest University, a conservative Christian doctoral university located within the Houghton jurisdiction since 1959 has also publicly announced its support for sunsetting the community councils in a letter, which describes how the Houghton Community Council has served hamper the campus’s operations in many ways by using its veto power.

Northwest University Letter on Community Councils by Natalie Bicknell on Scribd

“The Houghton Community Council creates a very expensive additional layer of bureaucracy for the University to negotiate whenever we are required to update our master plan. We estimate that the Houghton Community Council cost us at least a year of time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in our recent master plan approval process,” wrote Joseph L. Castleberry, President of Northwest University.

Castleberry also notes how the community council prevented the university from making its athletic fields available to youth sports team because of noise concerns. “While our campus is open to neighbors who want to walk through its park-like, peaceful atmosphere, the campus security force is required to chase away neighbors who want to use the fields for personal recreation such as kite flying or playing catch with a football on the former Seattle Seahawks practice fields,” Castleberry wrote.

Proposed amendments could derail intended impact

With support for sunsetting the community councils strong, it appears likely the HB 1769 will pass the Senate as well. However, two amendments to the bill introduced yesterday by Sen. Phil Fortunato (R – 31st Legislative District, Auburn) would significant alter its impact if adopted.

The first amendment would allow for expiration of the community councils in four years or at the end of community councilmembers’ terms, whichever is soonest. Currently all community councilmembers in Houghton and East Bellevue have terms extending to the end of 2025. The chief impact of this amendment would be that it would ensure the community councils remain in place as both Kirkland and Bellevue undertake significant updates to their Comprehensive Plans, in which major zoning and land use changes are sorted out. To better understand what form this impact might take, I reached out to Kirkland City Councilmember Kelli Curtis.

“The 2044 Comprehensive Plan, required by state law, is used by all cities as a guide to determine where housing and business growth should occur, what transportation system we will have to support that growth, what types of businesses and jobs we want to encourage, what types of housing we should have in the community, and how we can protect our natural environment. Our Comp Plan is the basis for zoning regulations that guide development and growth in Kirkland,” Curtis responded in an email.

“There is no elegant way to phase out land use oversight. If the Houghton Community Council remains over the next two-four years, it will impact Kirkland’s Comprehensive Plan process and our affordable housing, land use, job growth, and state law compliance for decades,” Curtis wrote. “Their veto authority pushes growth in housing and jobs out to other parts of the city (and region).”

The second amendment would allow for the community council jurisdiction to either petition for incorporation as a new city or initiate a resolution to be annexed to an existing city or town upon its expiration, which in theory could differ from Kirkland or Bellevue. Houghton and East Bellevue Community Councils already have the ability to go through a de-annexation process through existing RCW 35A.16, said Brady Nordstrom of Futurewise, a nonprofit focused on environmentally sustainable land use. Since the jurisdictions have not elected to go through this process yet, Nordstrom argues that it appears unlikely they would pursue this route, making it a mostly empty threat. But the amendment would make the process more expedient, so it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility.

A sample of the Houghton Community Council at work

To get an idea of the role played by the community councils, I tuned into yesterday’s Houghton Council Meeting which addressed the King County Health Through Housing initiative building planned at the La Quinta Inn located in the southernmost tip of Kirkland, near the border with Bellevue. Within the last three weeks, the county has decided that the location is suitable for permanent supportive housing and that they intend to buy the building, said Leo Flor, who is director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services

“We wouldn’t be here tonight if we didn’t think it was the right thing to do,” Flor said. He went on to explain how providing housing to people experiencing homelessness has proven to be the most effective intervention for stabilizing their lives.

To which, Houghton Community Council Chair Rick Whitney expressed surprise. “It sounds like a decision was made without a public meeting,” he said.

Although the La Quinta is located within the Houghton jurisdiction, because siting the facility there does not require a zoning change, the Houghton Community Council does not hold veto power over the county’s plans. However, it was clear that there were many reservations held by members of the community council. The concern that a permanent supportive housing building would present a danger to area children was at top of mind for many councilmembers and the first point raised when discussion opened up to the councilmembers.

“Why is this location a good location when there are five schools located within a mile?” Councilmember Bill Goggins asked, before stating that some of the children were as young as two-years old and that two of the schools were adjacent to the La Quinta — a private prep school and a Montessori school. Councilmember Ruth Wright later made the claim that there were in fact 12 schools located within a mile of the La Quinta, which only appears to be possible by rounding down and using as the crow flies measurement. Plus, a number of the 12 schools are located on the other side of SR 520, which is immediately adjacent to the La Quinta site, a point that was not made in the discussion, or on the other side of I-405, while is about a half mile east as the crow flies but much longer for earthbound suburbanites travelling on collector roads.

“We are placing the homeless over the safety of our children. I think our priorities are not the right ones,” Wright said.

Flor responded that it’s “common for housing to be located near schools.” He also described how people placed in permanent supportive housing have often already benefited from other services and are in a place of greater stability than people immediately exiting living outdoors. But his responses did not appear to assuage the councilmembers’ concerns and questions repeatedly returned to use of illegal drugs, food services, whether or not the housing would be a good use of community funds, and what kinds of support services would be present at the site.

Flor affirmed that residents would not be removed from the housing simply for having consumed illegal drugs, but that there would be community standards in place, which if violated, would result in a resident’s explosion. Still his responses did not sit well with the group.

In a moment that felt surreal to me, Councilmember Jon Kappler inquired about the cost of replacing the value of the hotel at a later date, stating that “tourism is such a large part of [Kirkland’s] economy” and that especially as the pandemic winds down it will be important “to get people to come and enjoy Kirkland.”

James Lopez, City Manager of Kirkland, said that homelessness was in fact a problem in Kirkland and that the City was supportive of King County’s plan. Emphasizing the need for shelter and housing on the Eastside in particular, he said it would be a priority of the City to increase the acceptance rate of people from Kirkland and the Eastside into the new facility. King County estimates that 40,800 residents experienced homelessness in 2020, with the problem impacting all cities in the region.

However, the seven community councilmembers’ remarks suggest they did not seem to accept the idea that homelessness was an issue in Kirkland and they appeared more convinced that offering housing to people who have experienced homelessness would attract more people currently experiencing homelessness into their area.

In all fairness, when discussion opened up to attendees at-large, many of the same reservations, especially those related to safety, arose in people’s comments. However, even if one accepts the idea that the all 180 participants were opposed to the La Quinta, that number would still only represent a tiny fraction of Kirkland’s population of more than 92,000 residents. The meeting confirmed that Houghton and East Bellevue Community Councils provide a loud megaphone to a very small number of residents, and it also showed why groups are like the Kirkland City Council are so concerned about how they may impact the city’s zoning and comprehensive planning process.

Support needed to get HB 1769 passed without a delayed sunsetting date

Advocates for HB 1769 are urging supporters to sign in as “pro” on the legislation and comment on the need to sunset immediately, not in four years. Doing so will help ensure that rapidly growing Kirkland and Bellevue and engage in planning processes better representative of what all their residents want.

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is a reporter and podcast host at The Urbanist. She previously served as managing editor. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.