Planning commissioner vindicated following ethics complaint

Two critics said Merle Ash profited from his public role. A Snohomish County ethics commission disagreed.

EVERETT — A Snohomish County ethics board has rejected allegations that a longtime member of the planning commission used his position for personal gain.

The Ethics Commission concluded Merle Ash did not violate county rules when he supported removing a buffer zone requirement from development standards. Two opponents of the controversial Frognal Estates development proposal complained in August that Ash, a consultant for the project, supported the policy change years ago because it benefited the plan.

Ethics Commission Chairman Giuseppe Fina found “no evidence that Mr. Ash had any direct or indirect, personal, or financial interest” when Ash voted in favor of the change, which allowed developers to grade and clear up to property lines. Fina’s written decision, penned last fall, was provided to The Daily Herald in January by the county.

Ash, along with others in the development community who pushed for the 2019 county code revision, said before the amendment passed that the two-foot setback required along property boundaries often became a magnet for rodents, trash and squatters.

The planning commissioner called the allegations against him “deceptive.”

“It’s not true. I didn’t get a nickel out of it,” said Ash, who was first appointed to the planning commission in 2014.

Last fall, the Snohomish County Council reappointed him to another four-year term.

Bill Lider and Linda Gray submitted the ethics complaint in protest of the reappointment. They have for years voiced concerns about conflicts of interest in Ash’s involvement with Frognal Estates.

Along with other opponents of the project, Lider and Gray have argued that Frognal Estates would create landslide risks on steep and environmentally sensitive land south of Mukilteo, near Picnic Point Elementary School.

The plan, consisting of 112 homes on 22 acres, is now on hold because its developer is trying to work out kinks in the financing. The project’s backers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last summer. Those proceedings are still unfolding, court records show.

Subdivision drawings — cited by Lider and Gray to support the allegations against Ash — contained errors, the planning commissioner has argued. Ash’s firm submitted the documents to county planners in spring 2018, showing no setbacks between Frognal Estates and neighboring property lines. But those setbacks were always part of the plan, according to Ash, and his firm later corrected the documents and re-submitted them.

So when Ash later voted in support of eliminating the setback requirements, he wasn’t doing so for the advantage of the project, he has said.

“Simply put, these allegations are nothing more than a bad faith and vindictive attempt at character assassination of a dedicated and respected public servant,” Ash’s attorney, Michael Zoretic, wrote in a 34-page response to the ethics commission.

The document was filed in late August, roughly a month after Lider and Gray submitted the formal complaint.

“Complainants – and Mr. Lider – in particular, have made a career out of challenging county development projects,” Zoretic wrote. “The current ‘ethics complaint’ against Mr. Ash takes this strategy of obstruction and interference to a new low – making willfully untruthful and deceptive misrepresentations about Mr. Ash’s conduct and character in a blatant attempt to falsely and maliciously injure his professional reputation and have him removed from the Planning Commission.”

Lider, an engineer who serves on the board for the Sno-King Watershed Council, maintains that developers only advocated for the elimination of the buffer zones because it would allow them to fit more homes in new subdivisions. He stands by his original complaint, he said, calling the ethics board’s ruling “unfortunate.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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