Who should decide the character of a neighborhood? Is it the people living in the neighborhood? Is it the city government with its zoning laws and comprehensive plans? Is it the developer that owns property in the neighborhood? For homeowners in Wellington, the look, feel, and some would say, safety of their neighborhood will be decided by the State Supreme Court. And the decision could have ramifications far beyond Woodinville.

What exactly will be decided? Whether a developer can buy property in an existing neighborhood and force the city to change the zoning on the land to allow more housing. In the Wellington case, the question is this: Will the developer be allowed to change the character of the area by building four houses per acre in a neighborhood known for its large country lots, with only one house per acre or so. The State Supreme Court will hear oral arguments March 15.

“If this gets through, it will change Wellington, it will change the state,” said Phil Relnick. “It means a developer can come in and force zone changes that are completely out of character with what already exists.”

Relnick is president of Concerned Neighbors of Wellington, a nonprofit homeowners group that organized to fight the development. Relnick has owned his home in Wellington for nearly 13 years. He said his rural, quiet, country life will be destroyed if Phoenix Development, the landowner in the case, is allowed to build two higher-density subdivisions, totaling at least 122 houses in the neighborhood.

“We are not no-growthers,” said Matt Schultz, Wellington homeowner and past president of CNW. “There are places in Woodinville where a development like this would make sense. What we are saying is homeowners have a right to self-determination.”

The court case arose from a 2007 decision by the city to deny the developer, Phoenix, rezoning of property from the low-density R-1 designation to R-4. The city contends that the two proposed developments, Wood Trails and Montevallo, are incompatible with the city’s comprehensive plan and King County’s Growth Management Act (GMA), pointing out that the area in question has been zoned R-1 since the city’s incorporation. Phoenix challenged the decision in court.

In 2008, Superior Court Judge Dean Lum ruled in favor of the city. Phoenix Development appealed to the Court of Appeals, which overturned the previous decision, ruling in Phoenix Development’s favor.  The State Supreme Court has now agreed to review the Court of Appeals decision.

The city’s position in the appeal is supported by the Washington State Association of Municipal Attorneys and the Association of Washington Cities, according to Alexandra Sheeks, assistant to the city manager.  CNW has also joined the city in the appeal. At issue is whether locally elected city councils have the right and authority to make these types of decisions for their communities.

Efforts to contact the developer were unsuccessful.

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