Many people in the historic town of Black Diamond like to keep to themselves. A city with just over 4,000 residents, it holds the unusual distinction in King County of not having changed much in the last 50 years.
One local resident describes the town this way, “It’s a down-to-earth place where people come because they like it small. You don’t have to keep your yard perfectly manicured, the homes are unique and there are a lot of old-timers.”
So, when 60 people show up to a City Council meeting, and over 650 people sign a petition, something is going on.
On Thursday, March 3, the Council Chambers were crowded to standing room only, and citizen after citizen implored the council to do a better job representing their wishes. What do they want? According to the petition, they want the council to repeal an ordinance passed last fall to approve massive developments that will include over 6,000 residences and 1.1 million square feet of retail.
The fuel for the fire on Thursday came from a recent legal victory for the citizens handed down from the state’s Growth Management Hearing Board. The board ruled that the city had not followed proper process for public input on the developments. For months during the application process, the city’s rules silenced any conversation or lobbying between citizens and their elected council members, allowing only a set of non-interactive hearings.
The city’s response to the legal ruling was to wait for the developer’s appeal to try to overturn the ruling. City resident Monica Stewart has followed the issues closely, and said, “The city appears to be proceeding with development plans rather than doing what we expected, which was to go back to the application process. It’s very confusing and it feels like they are playing tricks to push through the developments.”
Over the past year, the development has been a source of great controversy in Black Diamond and surrounding communities. Despite the problems with the public hearings in 2010, and perhaps because of the lack of interaction allowed outside of them, several hundred people attended and testified in opposition to the scale and design of the project.
The criticisms included anticipated traffic jams, water pollution, loss of wildlife and forest, crowded schools, higher taxes and other impacts to this rural area of southeast King County.
Of those 2010 hearings, Stewart said, “They (the City Council) ignored and failed to respond to all the testimony people gave. People poured their hearts into telling the city how the project infringed on their rights, and the applications were just approved anyway. They are full of loopholes for the developer and we tried to stop it. We are still trying.”
Indeed, the public records show that the hearings also included testimony from King County and the city of Maple Valley. The testimony from these entities was not responded to formally and does not appear to be addressed in the approved ordinance.
Following Thursday’s hearing, the city council held a long executive session in private with the city attorney. There was speculation that the large and vigorous outcry from the public could be changing the momentum on the project.
This outcry is in contrast to meeting after meeting through 2007, 2008 and 2009, where council meeting notes show mostly city employees attending and perhaps a representative from YarrowBay, the company planning the new developments.
Most residents were not aware of the development plans until last year. Now the word is out, and attendance at city meetings has been growing.
It seems those who had taken the humble town for granted are being replaced by those with an appreciation for what they’ve got, as growth and development come knocking at the door.