In the wealthy lakeside neighborhood of Laurelhurst, residents are launching an insurgence against the Laurelhurst Community Club (LCC), the primary organization representing neighborhood residents. Neighbors are retaliating against the LCC after the group filed an appeal with the city seeking to stunt the growth of Seattle Children's Hospital.
According to Ruth Benfield, vice president for Facilities and Psycho-Social Services at Children's Hospital, the hospital foresees an influx of sick kids over the next 20 years that will require 350 new hospital beds. In December, the city gave the hospital preliminary approval to expand. The hospital agreed to reduce the maximum building height from 240 to 150 feet. But the compromises weren't enough for the LCC.
"It would pretty much destroy the character of the surrounding communities with a Bellevue Square–type development," says LCC president Jeannie Hale. The group has asked a city hearing examiner to deny the hospital's permit, arguing that Children's overestimated the future demand for new beds and underestimated the adverse impacts of auto traffic on the neighborhood. "They consistently refused to compromise on the proposal to add 1.5 million square feet in a low-density, family area," says Hale.
In its appeal, the LCC claims it "represents the interests of the community's 2,800 households and businesses."
In response, Dixie Wilson, who moved to the neighborhood in 1998, filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court on February 24 demanding that the LCC divulge details of its finances and records. The suit also seeks to determine if the group has been "polling the members before speaking publicly as though they represent the members" and to "understand how funds are collected and how they are spent."
Wilson, who also served as a cochair for Friends of Children's Hospital, a group that supports the hospital's expansion, believes LCC's financial records will show the group is using member dues to fund its legal efforts against the hospital. According to Hale, the group has spent $34,900 in the last two years on lawyers' fees. The group also paid an unspecified amount to analysts who determined the hospital didn't really need to expand.
"They make decisions and spend money—my money—on something that I don't agree with," says Wilson, who has paid $40 to $50 in dues every year for the last decade.
Wilson's suit alleges that the LCC's lawyer initially stymied her attempts to obtain financial records, which, according to the state law governing nonprofits, are supposed to be "open at any time to inspection by any member of more than three-months standing."
"We are doing our best to represent the views of our community and the majority of our members," says Hale. She says that only a "handful" of residents came to public LCC board meetings to support the hospital's growth plan.
However, residents contacted by The Stranger were enthusiastically in favor of the larger hospital and appalled by the LCC's opposition.
"Nobody I know in the neighborhood has ever been asked or polled by the Laurelhurst Community Club about any of these issues," Wilson says. "I thought, 'I just can't stand back and let these people stand for us publicly and take legal action on issues I so greatly disagree with.'"
Peggy Coats, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, plans to speak at a separate procedural hearing on the hospital expansion before a city hearing examiner in March. "I plan to make it known that [the LCC's leaders] are not speaking for the 2,800 households of Laurelhurst."
"Most of the people who I have talked to are sort of flabbergasted that anyone would be opposed to the expansion," says Kevin Barrett, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years.
Ingrid Savage, who has lived in Laurelhurst for 37 years, says, "These people have been whining about every single thing the hospital does... for years." She adds: "I'm embarrassed to say I live in Laurelhurst." For example, Savage cites the community club's successful efforts to reduce medevac helicopter trips to and from Children's Hospital. (Hale says the helipad at Children's is half a block from an elementary school and "landing causes big gusts of wind and endangers the kids on the playfield.")
Meghan Quint, executive director of Northeast Seattle Cares, a group that supports the expansion, held a meeting attended by about 40 Laurelhurst residents last week. "People became very angry that the community club had taken their money to pay lawyers and filed an appeal with their money without asking their opinion," she says. Several other residents concurred.
Considering the hospital's expansion has undergone years of review—both by the city and a citizens advisory committee—the LCC's appeal is unlikely to stop the construction. But Wilson's suit, and other residents' opposition to the group, could permanently weaken the organization's claim to represent the neighborhood.
"I'd love to see new leadership in the Laurelhurst Community Club," says Wilson. "I think many of us would."