The city sleeps, the bull dozes

A West Seattle developer drives a bulldozer through a city loophole.

AFTER MYSTERIOUSLY IGNORING its own rules, the city of Seattle is finally standing up to a West Seattle developer intent on building a housing development on a wetland. The developer, Gordon Trifts, had convinced a city inspector during a telephone call to remove an “environmentally sensitive” designation from his property without bothering to visit the site. Then, well aware that his window of opportunity was narrow, Trifts immediately bulldozed the land, without securing proper permits.

The idea, apparently, was to present the city with a fait accompli when neighborhood activists brought Trifts’ maneuvering to the attention of enforcers. But the embarrassed city instead ordered him to replant nearly an acre of the land in question, which runs along 18th Avenue SW, where he had hoped to build five homes. Puget Creek Watershed Alliance, the neighborhood coalition that rode the city for months in an attempt to get it to enforce its own environmental laws, now is watching to make sure Trifts restores the site.

Interested parties are still asking what went wrong. Last March, when Trifts bought the land, it was designated as environmentally sensitive on city maps. Trifts called a city inspector and argued that since the section of Puget Creek running through his property is piped underground and wouldn’t be affected by his plans to build five homes—each on a 5,000-square-foot-lot—the “environmentally sensitive” designation was an error. City inspector Paul Janos was persuaded to let Trifts off the hook for a full environmental review—a privilege not accorded any of Trifts’ new neighbors, and one that violates city policy.

David Erickson, for example, owns property that ends just 50 feet from Trifts’. When he applied to subdivide his property in 1993, the city ordered a battery of tests—paid for by Erickson—that verified the existence of a wetland on his property. The designation made development more expensive and less extensive. “We spent three years and thousands of dollars,” Erickson says. Many homes in the area, because of the designation, sit on tracts of 10,000 to 20,000 square feet.

All summer long, residents begged Department of Construction and Land Use officials not to let Trifts build in the wetland. But DCLU claimed it could not take action until the developer had applied for his permits. In August, when Trifts finally asked to subdivide, the city scheduled a public meeting to gather comments from neighbors and other interested citizens—but by then, Trifts had done his bulldozing.

The subsequent hearing turned into a dispute between activists and Christine Bruno, the inspector charged with granting or refusing Trifts’ subdivision permit. Bruno knew nothing about the wetland adjacent to Trifts’ property, and suggested that activists misunderstood the city codes. Once she was shown city land surveys designating Trifts’ land as environmentally sensitive—and after she endured an evening’s worth of accusations that she had caved in to a developer at the expense of less powerful citizens—Bruno ordered Trifts to hire an environmental firm to define his property’s status once and for all.

PREDICTABLY ENOUGH, the firm—Terra Associates—endorsed Trifts’ plans. Activists, though, managed to get the Army Corps of Engineers to do its own analysis. The corps, whose findings the city is mandated by law to follow, determined that a large cross-section of Trifts’ property was indeed a wetland. Seattle Department of Construction and Land Use supervisor Mark Johnson then issued a citation ordering Trifts to restore the plants he had destroyed.

The battle—as is often the case in land-use disputes—may be far from over. As it stands now, Trifts may be allowed to build two houses on the drier part of his property. But he also is preparing to contest the corps’ findings.

Some neighbors remain convinced that the city was prepared to appease this developer at the expense of its own environmental regulations. DCLU’s Johnson insists that that is not the case. He says DCLU turnover is such that new inspectors don’t always have the information they need to make the appropriate decisions. But inspector Christine Bruno admits that developers do sometimes pressure inspectors to grant permits practically over the counter, and this bothers her. “It’s always better to make a well-rounded decision,” she says. “When something goes on a site, it’s permanent.” It is, after all, more or less impossible to un-bulldoze a piece of property.