Auburn business owners object to rezoning push



November 22, 2006
King County Journal
By Mike Archbold
Journal Reporter

AUBURN Business owners are expected to fill the City Council chambers tonight to protest what they view as an unnecessary assault on industrial businesses by city officials.

Mayor Pete Lewis proposes to rezone at least 96 parcels of land, including 15 industrial businesses, from industrial to a commercial zone as part of amending the city's Comprehensive Plan.

Charlie Harris, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Skills Inc., in north Auburn, calls the city's proposed rezoning a "steam roller," and he and a number of other industrial owners are fighting back. His six acres on 30th Street Northeast and I Street Northeast would go from light industrial to commercial zoning.

A former mayor of Normandy Park, he said he knows how government should work and this isn't it.

A full-page ad Saturday in the Journal paid for by a group of manufacturers asks: "Hey, City of Auburn! Do you want manufacturing to leave?"

The ad includes a hot line number (888-277-7974) for residents seeking more information.

Letters of protest have come in to the city from a number of businesses including Auburn 18 Distribution Center at 521 Eighth St. S.W.; the recycling center of Waste Management of Washington, at 701 Second St.; and Joseph S. Simmons Construction Inc., which owns four buildings on A Street Southeast at 11th Street Southeast.

Rezoning doesn't sound like an attack, but owners say becoming a commercial zone makes their industrial businesses an illegal land use, a "nonconforming use" that is subject to restrictions.

They argue that becoming a nonconforming use will make getting financing more difficult, make it more difficult to find tenants and devalue their properties if forced to sell them for commercial uses.

"You are absolutely at the whim of the city," Harris said. "If they don't like you, you are in trouble. I can't leave Skills in that position."

He said the city doesn't like Skills Inc. because as a nonprofit it doesn't pay property tax, even though it provides $5 million a year in wages to 150 handicapped and disabled workers.

Harris and others have hired Brian Derdowski, a former King County councilman and now a public affairs consultant, to organize their efforts.

Derdowski calls Lewis' effort "social engineering to raise taxes by chasing out undesirable businesses that employ people and pay good family wage jobs."

Further stirring the pot, he said, is what appear to be side deals with some industrial owners to exempt them from the rezones. Utility Vault on A Street Southwest, a wrecking yard south of Utility Vault, and 18 acres owned by Segale Properties have been taken off the rezoning table.

Other smaller owners are trying to work their own deals, Derdowski said.

Lewis and city planners defend the proposed changes, saying they are part of a process of amending the city's Comprehensive Plan and then actually rezoning parcels to reflect those amendments.

There are 233 parcels scattered about the city affected by the changes. According to city staff, some date back to amendments approved in 2005.

Lewis said the plan changes and rezoning are a tool for meeting the city's long-term 2016 vision that calls for more commercial areas full of retail stores, restaurants and service businesses. He said the city has 21.7 percent of its land in industrial use; the proposal would reduce it to about 18.5 percent. Seattle, he pointed out, has only 13 percent industrial land.

What the city is trying to do is discourage industrial uses in the future in a number of commercial-leaning areas: I Street Northeast in North Auburn north of 30th Street Northeast; A Street Southeast across from the Burlington Northern yard, West Main Street, Emerald Downs and south of the Environmental Park.

Lewis said making an industrial business a nonconforming use does carry some restrictions, but it still allows the existing business to stay there as long as it wants. It can even be sold to someone else to operate it as a similar business. Becoming a commercial zone usually will increase the value of property.

What it prevents, Lewis said, is selling the property for another unrelated industrial use and perpetuating manufacturing in an area that is becoming commercial.

As for a nonconforming use designation affecting business loans or financing, Lewis, himself a former banker, said that was "nonsense."

Amber Carter, director of tax and fiscal policy for the Association of Washington Businesses, said a nonconforming use designation does have consequences for businesses.

"It makes it very difficult to maintain current property value for future development," she said. "You are limited in the types of development you can have."

She said the changes planned in Auburn will hurt businesses like Skills Inc., and many others in the city.

Jack Danner, who owns Danner Corp., an aerospace manufacturing company that has been in Auburn 28 years, said he is not happy with a rezone to commercial.

"I feel this kind of came out of nowhere," he said. "Nobody called me, nobody wrote me a letter. A friend called to alert me."

He said he talked with the mayor, who "assured me that it wasn't going to happen." He said the city agreed to put together a master agreement to allow his business to expand and be sold sometime in the future.

Danner said he is mystified why his six acres off A Street Southwest located between two schools and backed against the White River at the bottom of Lakeland Hills would ever be considered commercial. He said his biggest worry is whether property taxes will go up under the new zoning.

Danner's property, however, is still on the list. He said he can't make the meeting tonight, but added, "They are going to do what they are going to do."

In October, the Auburn Planning Commission recommended against rezoning a number of the industrial properties including Skills Inc. Last week, however, the council's Planning and Development Committee approved them.

Lewis said the planning commission heard only one side of the issue.

"I don't think the planning commission had a sense of the vision that went into this," said City Planning Director Michael Davolio.

Harris said business owners would like to have another public hearing before the council, but the mayor has refused to do that. At tonight's council meeting, they plan to speak during the public comment period.

Two years ago, Harris said the city tried to change Skills Inc. to commercial zoning and failed on a 4-3 vote following a public hearing before the City Council.

He doesn't expect the council to vote against the changes this time.

"The mayor has his ducks all lined up," he said.

Mike Archbold can be reached at or at 253-872-6647.

Rezoning on agenda today

Business owners and other interested parties can speak on Auburn's rezoning proposals during the public comment period of the City Council meeting. The meeting starts at 7:30 tonight at City Hall, 25 W. Main St.

Last modified: November 20. 2006 12:00AM