Lacey charges more than $2,000 for a land use appeal. Is that fair?

Lacey residents John and Margaret Green moved to the area in December, settling in at the popular retirement destination known as Jubilee.

The community for those 55 and older is found in northeast Lacey and its reach extends to the shores of Puget Sound. One of John Green’s favorite activities is to walk a nearby trail — a trail enjoyed by several neighborhoods in the area — that passes through a beloved forest near the end.

The Greens not only discovered a beautiful walking trail but also a concern: A developer had filed a permit to thin 35 percent of that forest, a permit that was ultimately approved by the city.

When the Greens took issue with that decision, they discovered something else: To appeal that city decision to a hearings examiner would cost them more than $2,000.

And if they disagreed with the hearings examiner decision, they could appeal it to Lacey City Council for more than $600.

The Greens shared their concerns directly with the City Council on Sept. 26 and spelled out the specific costs, which were confirmed by city officials. While the permit cost the developer $316, the appeal would cost the couple $2,179, and the appeal to council would cost $632, the Greens explained.

John Green told the council the expense “stifles citizen dissent.”

“We felt like the process was skewed in favor of the city, and didn’t feel like investing that much money in an appeal that would probably fail anyway,” he later told The Olympian.

Is a land use appeal of more than $2,000 fair?

A check with Olympia, Tumwater and Thurston County shows Lacey’s appeal fee is nearly double that of Olympia and the county, and is 20 times higher than the fee in Tumwater.

A Lacey official defended the fee because city rates and fees hadn’t been adjusted in 20 years, but another city official wants to make sure “there is a fair balance.”

What do you charge?

The city of Olympia charges $1,000 to appeal a staff decision to the hearings examiner, said Leonard Bauer, deputy director of the community planning and development department. Although that’s about half what Lacey charges, Bauer said that in his six years with the city, the city fields less than five appeals a year.

Around 2015, the city undertook a third-party study of its rates and fees and emerged with a goal of recovering 85 percent of its costs — such as staff time and other processing costs — through those fees.

Although that’s the goal, it’s not always met, he said. Unlike Lacey, a hearings examiner appeal doesn’t come before City Council; it is heard in Thurston County Superior Court, he said.

Thurston County charges $1,360 for an appeal to the hearings examiner and another $1,020 to appeal it to the Board of Thurston County Commissioners, said Brett Bures, building and planning manager for the county’s community planning and economic development department. Those two costs put it in the realm of what Lacey charges. Bures said the county has averaged three appeals a year over the last five.

Tumwater’s cost for an appeal might be the most surprising fee in the county. It charges $100, said Mike Matlock, community development director.

“The feeling has been we don’t get a lot of these (appeals), so let’s keep it accessible,” he said.

The city can go years without one and the fee is high enough to weed out frivolous appeals, Matlock said. However, the city does not recover its costs, he said.

If $100 is accessible, it appears that Lacey’s cost reinforces the idea of the city being a developer-friendly community.

Lacey’s process

Around 2016, the city undertook a review of its rates and fees for the first time in 20 years, said George Smith, economic development coordinator. The result of that work raised some fees but also lowered others, he said. They also took a thorough approach.

They got feedback from the council in committee meetings and work sessions, and also got input from Olympia Master Builders, a trade group that represents builders and similar professionals. All of that produced a goal of recovering 75 percent of city costs through changes to rates and fees, he said.

Smith acknowledged that some city processes can be incredibly time consuming so that staff time is reflected in a higher fee. The appeal fee went from $1,035 to $2,179, or an increase of 110 percent.

The city does not have many appeals, Smith said.

“Staff does a good job of looking at applications when they come in,” he said.

Smith also pointed out that even with the higher appeals fee of $2,179, it is recovering only 26 percent of the city’s cost devoted to that time.

One of the few appeals in recent years in Lacey was when resident Joe Panesko challenged a city decision approving The Reserve at Lacey, a senior apartment project now nearly complete at Carpenter Road Southeast and Pacific Avenue Southeast.

Panesko recalled he paid the $1,035 fee. His appeal failed before the hearings examiner and he chose to take it no further.

He called the new fee “excessive” and agreed it “stifles public participation in the process.” Panesko said citizens shouldn’t have to pay those costs because there is an “inherent cost to city government.”

Mayor Andy Ryder heard the Greens testify Sept. 26.

“I agree the cost needs to be examined,” he said in an email to The Olympian. “We should review the time it takes to process the original permit and compare it to the time it would take on appeal and make sure there is a fair balance.”

Rolf has worked at The Olympian since August 2005. He covers breaking news, the city of Lacey and business for the paper. Rolf graduated from The Evergreen State College in 1990.