When is it appropriate to use environmentalism to stop developments?

Editor’s note: Today, I’d like to welcome Jon Ribary as the newest contributor to RCG. With one of our other contributors, Eileen, he owns LTD Properties in Seattle. When I first started blogging, Jon was an early follower of RCG and began developing an online mapping tool around the first time I started gHomes. Jon’s take on real estate is from a slightly different perspective in that, first and foremost, he is a developer of land as oppose to an agent. In a constant effort to explore new areas of real estate, I look forward to seeing where Jon takes us!

A recent article from the Snohomish County’s Herald Newspaper got me thinking about the fine line between “preserving the environment” and NIMBYism (Not in my back yard!). I find that rather than really caring about preserving the environment, people use environmentalism as a hammer to slow down or stop projects that will “ruin” their view or preserve some favorite local property from being developed.

In the case of the Lake Stickney, the county says that the proposed development meets all applicable environmental laws, and yet one local, Chris Lloyd says “This is all about salmon habitat.” I’m not convinced.

To bring it to a personal level, if the house I live in has a sweeping view of the sound. Between me and my view was a 1940s rambler that just sold. The buyer, a builder who is planning to demo the house to build a 3 story home that would block my view. Do I have a right to stop that development, just to save my view, or is it an individual’s (or company’s) right to do what they wish on the property as long as they are abiding by development standards? If I wanted to keep the property from being developed, is my only right to buy the property to ensure it is not changed (or negotiate a view easement)?

If environmentalist’s #1 goal is to make sure projects are being developed properly, then I am on board. With land use and building codes where they are today, my past experiences tells me the proper precautions are being taken. If the opposition are anti-development and are using this tactic as a way to slow down or trump the development of the land, then I think environmentalism is simply being used as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to stop developments…

24 thoughts on “When is it appropriate to use environmentalism to stop developments?

  1. A better example might be the owners of South Center bankrolling the environmental complaints against a competing shopping center in Renton to be built on Boeing property. I think its called “The Landing.”

  2. Welcome to RCG Jon. (Yes, we did go to high school together).

    You make some good points. I think some developers (at least on my side of the mountains) are so used to environmental regs being an anti-development “Trojan Horse” that they close their mind to much of the good that these regs bring. I think we progress when enivironmentalists and developers look for common ground instead of constantly fighting each other and denying the needs of the other party.

    Our county (Chelan) has just set up a new Development Advisory Board. It’s a great chance for the real estate and development community to work with the county for the good of the community on an ongoing basis. Instead of being reactive, we can be proactive. So far it’s working really well.

  3. As a land use attorney in the SF Bay Area, my experience has been that the real purpose of environmental lawsuits is almost never about the “environmental issues” raised in the suit. The standard lawsuit goes through a project environmental impact report and criticizes everything whether it is a real concern or not. The motivating factors are usually economic or aesthetic, grounds upon which the opponents really have no ground to sue. So they sue over some environmental issue that they really don’t care about, because there is room to debate that issue. The only exception I can think of is where neighbors object to a new development because of traffic, and traffic is the real concern.

  4. Welcome Jon,

    You didn’t say what your opinion is with regard to your home and your neighbor? How do you really feel, Jon?

    Some view neighborhoods (Lake Sammamish view) do have restrictions that protect views. Kirkland has FAR values that need to be adhered to, height restrictions, etc…but they do not guarantee how these will impact the view. They simply dictate size of house beyond the normal setback requirements.

    How do you really feel about your situation?

  5. Ardell-

    I believe the best and only way to control the torrid home growth is to be mindful of environmental issues. If the municipality requires a 300’ setback from a wetland, then as extreme as that may be, in my eyes there is absolutely no reason to fight the rules (or seek a variance). On the other hand, with regards to my view going away, I believe it is up to the property owner to decide the highest and best (lawful) use of the land. If I passed on the property I described in my blog because of the opportunity of future growth. In this case, my only options to keep the view would be to either fight the future build by appeal after appeal (dirty game), be granted a height easement or buy the property myself.

  6. Paul-

    That is a great example! I wish there was some type of committee that could be a buffer for these types of fights. The problem begins with the barrier to entry, if you will, to fight these battles is so cost effective.

    Considering Weisfield is very public about the fact they are protecting their “shoppers and shareholders” interests makes their fight even more apparent environmentalism is being used as a ‘Trojan Horse’

    Thanks for bringing up the battle between Weisfield and the Renton Landing!

  7. Jon and Dustin,

    Without reference to Weisfield, existing homes and view protections have a lot to do with the “nature of the beast”, rather than the “nature” issues. If the house is in a big City, don’t expect any protections beyond zoning requirements. If the house is in a development, then don’t go to the City to find or get protections, build them into the CC & R’s or Deed Restrictions of the Planned Community.

    Neighbors can bond together to form a “pact” of sorts, to protect one another, that go far beyond any municipalities protections of value. “Unobstructable” view always trumps “view today; gone tomorrow”.

  8. Pingback: Seattle’s Rain City Real Estate Guide » Speaking of Trojan Horses!

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  10. As a resident of Lake Stickney I want to assure you that this is an environmental concern not a NIMBY response. This is a request by the developers to rezone the property and there are several reasons why this propery is exceptional and should not be rezoned. Several reports have identified the western shore as a sensitive area on Lake Stickney. For example, Snohomish County Public Works, Lake Stickney, State of the Lakes Report 2003, “Future Concerns/Targets – The primary concern is for potential declines in water quality that might result from nutrient pollution coming from the large highly developed watershed. Another concern is the possible loss of wetlands adjacent to the west part of the lake as development pressures increase. …”. In addition, the NEMO: Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials web site has summary graphs showing the strong correlation between increased urbanization, and lake degradation unless run-off is well controlled and good buffer areas are maintained around lakes and streams. The density of the development proposed on the western shore of lake Stickney does not meet these criteria.

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