Residents are sued for challenging rezone

By WARREN CORNWALL

Herald Writer

BOTHELL — Nine-year-old Katie Jordan doesn’t know much about planned residential developments, rezoning and hearing examiners. Her mind is on her friends at school, her dog, Buddy, and Santa Claus.

Nevertheless, she’s one of the defendants in a lawsuit by an Everett company challenging a Snohomish County Council rejection of a development near Katie’s house. The company is also seeking $2 million in damages.

"It’s not exactly the funnest thing to put up with," said her father, Matt Jordan. He is also named in the suit. "I have to pull my 9-year-old out of school" for a court appearance.

That Katie landed in Snohomish County Superior Court is largely a technicality. Her parents put her name alongside theirs on an appeal to the county council, in order to point out that entire families would be affected by the planned 109-home development, Jordan said.

But it highlights the unforeseen challenges citizens encounter when they venture into the complicated and arcane world of land-use policy. That has become more common here, as the years-long building spree presses in on existing neighborhoods.

Jordan questioned whether his family and seven neighbors were named in the suit as an intimidation tactic, particularly with the plaintiff seeking $2 million in damages. If that wasn’t the intent, it still may have that affect on some people, he said.

News of the lawsuit has quickly spread through the loose network of citizen activists pursuing similar cases around the county, and has raised concerns.

"When something like this comes around and slaps you down, you’re like ‘Holy mackerel! Is it really worth doing something like this?’" Jordan said. "It’s already hard enough to get people involved."

But Bill Foster, the attorney representing the developer, Pacific Rim Development Inc., said there was no intention to intimidate. State law requires them to include the people who appealed the proposal, as well as the county, he said.

"I have to name these people because the Legislature told me that," he said. "Quite frankly, if it were up to me I would not name them."

Following an initial call from The Herald, Foster later said he had discussed the matter with his client, and they will write a letter to the people Monday telling them they aren’t a target of the damage claim that is part of the suit.

"We’re not interested in suing 9-year-olds," he said.

That was some relief to Jordan. But he said he and his neighbors might still need to hire an attorney to handle the legal paperwork that accompanied the court action.

"It’s going to cost us money even to find out what we should do," said Len Goodisman, another resident named in the court action.

The residents have already learned the usefulness of such experts, and the price. They turned to a lawyer and hired scientists to help them find their way through the thicket of county and state regulations governing developments, and to challenge the development plans.

They opposed the project, fearing it would bring more traffic and would damage nearby Swamp Creek, Goodisman said. Now they are trying to pay off $12,000 of debt with garage sales, selling novelty shoelaces and hosting fund-raising dinners.

The result: The county council in November rejected the developer’s proposal to rezone a 25-acre parcel to fit the 109-home development there. In its ruling, the council said the project didn’t meet road standards and defied regulations by trying to fit all the houses on one lot, rather than subdividing it.

Foster counters that the county used regulations that don’t fit the project.

"They kind of attached a mish-mash of other ordinances which didn’t specifically apply to this development," he said.

Norm Tubbs, the co-owner of Pacific Rim Development, said the dispute has been costly for him as well, including $120,000 in attorney fees. He said he didn’t question the citizens’ right to appeal the plans, but he challenged the county’s decision to side with them.

"All they (the appellants) have to do is go to an attorney and get released from it. It’s not a big deal. Our complaint is with the county," he said.

Tubbs also said Katie’s involvement in the legal action had more to do with her parents’ actions.

"What kind of a person would make his daughter an appellant to a preliminary plat?" he said.

The county can reject developments that seek to fit more houses on a piece of land than normally allowed but that don’t offer benefits to the area in return, said Barbara Dykes, the county’s deputy prosecuting attorney who heads the land-use unit.

She said it’s not uncommon for citizens challenging a plan to wind up named in a court action.

"I think the difference in this case is the plaintiff did not specify that damages were against the county instead of the citizens," she said.

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