(WSB photo by Patrick Sand)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“We’ve organized this meeting because you requested it. … We’re here to listen and write down your comments.”
That’s how senior land-use planner Bruce Rips from the city Department of Planning and Development opened last night’s meeting at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center about the two-lots-into-eight subdivision proposal for the 42,000-square-foot greenbelt site at 6536 24th SW (map), describing himself as the “project facilitator.” Also on hand, DPD manager Jerry Suder, who has been in attendance at most of these types of meetings.
The two revealed that they’ve already asked the site owner/developer to respond to concerns that have come up during the city review, and are still awaiting answers. The big concerns about this site, as first reported here in January, involve what happens to the wildlife and wetland on the site, and how runoff will affect Longfellow Creek, steps away and already a flooding problem many years because of the area’s drainage woes, as shown in this photo by neighbor Cyndie Rokicki (the proposed-subdivision site is in the background, with the real-estate shingle):
As Rips pointed out while presenting an overview – and as noted on the December application notice – the project is in an Environmentally Critical Area, with other factors including its steep slope. He walked the dozens of attendees through the process – including an initial review by DPD personnel. He said they haven’t heard back from the property owner “about the concerns that my colleagues and myself wrote about” after they sent correction notices – which aren’t always “corrections,” but sometimes requests for further information before they can make a decision on whether to approve a proposal.
They are doing a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review on the site, evaluating everything from the trees to the drainage on the site. Rips walked the crowd through a variety of handouts made available, before opening the microphone (which no one used, as they chose to stand where they sat). “Tell us what you know of the area of the project. Our review at the city is about the short-platting of the property. I know that in your minds there are more global issues related to the neighborhood – we’ll of course listen to that, but when we go back (to city HQ), it’s about the property.”
Suder pointed out that the riparian-corridor issue, involving nearby Longfellow Creek, is key: “This proposal really did not deal with that issue at all – that down-slope part of the site, they’re going to have to do a lot of documentation, and if there’s an approval here, it’s going to be for something that does not disturb the lowest part of the site. We really don’t know how they’re going to respond.” He said that means the “final plat” won’t necessarily look like what’s outlined on the proposal – because the owner “did not deal well” with the riparian-corridor issue.
Frank Cunningham stood up first to speak: “One of the things that concerns me in reading the applicant’s comments – some of the wildlife that were listed were not a full list of what’s down there. Songbirds are not the only thing on that property.” He said they’ve had ducks, eagles, raccoons, red foxes, “and none of that has been listed.” Noting that short-plat usually means construction ahead for the lots, “what does that entail for emergency response for that area? As far as I know, there aren’t many fire hydrants in the area.” He says the road barely can accommodate two cars, let alone emergency vehicles.
Rips noted that the Fire Department will wind up reviewing the proposal.
Next, Cyndie Rokicki had questions about the SEPA report, particularly “addressing the flooding in the area.” She said the property owner wrote that the project she’s been heading up (reported here in January) would address some of the issues – yet the project is not finalized, let alone funded. The area has flooding trouble most years, Rokicki said, and “further water being added to that is just going to increase the problem. For the people who buy (the future homes),” she believes they’ll have access problems as do those who live on the street now.
One suggestion, she said, called for diverting water into the creek – “which would be across my property.” She also asked about the house torn down on the site. “It was a known meth house – so, whether the contamination (from it) is in the soil and would be (released) during construction, how does that affect all the people in the neighborhood?” She wondered if soil testing has since been done.
Amber Knox spoke third: She took issue with a report citing that there was no habitat provided by the site: “We live in a watershed – every piece of property (provides that) … this is a known salmon stream, and I would like to encourage the developers to respect that. I’m all for urban infill and for sensible density but it does not seem they are thinking about the watershed that we are living in.”
Diane talked about her aunt, a biologist, working years ago to bring back salmon runs, and how the creek has overflown and run onto the road, blocking access to her street, 25th, twice in the 20 years she’s lived there. She also pointed out “a lot of little streams that come off the hill,” some of them seasonal, many unnamed, running into Longfellow Creek. She said some of the streams are running across the street right now.
Heather Wiker, who has been active in pursuing answers to concerns about the project, spoke next. “We’ve made a lot of comments, our neighbors and I have, and we haven’t heard back” from the city. She said she’s been reviewing the Seattle Municipal Code, particularly, 25.05.670, the Cumulative Effects Policy (see it here), and read from the policy, which seemed to address domino effects, such as the fact the short plat would allow homebuilding.
She mentioned the flooding problems and also a Combined Sewer Overflow that drains into the creek. “When it floods, not only do we have water going down the street, it’s actually sewage.” She said they’re concerned that the flooding will get worse on the block and back up for others in the area, and talked about the project that neighbors have been working on, asking a technical question that Rips acknowledged he couldn’t answer. He did say that new development tends to improve drainage because the rules are tighter now. Suder added, “Drainage has been a tough issue for this city for a long time.” He said “the existing stuff that’s been out there a long time” never dealt well with drainage at all, so they try to make sure new projects do. “We try to make sure sites infiltrate their ground water to the maximum extent feasible, so it’s not” running off elsewhere. “This site is going to be a challenge because there’s not a good place for the water to infiltrate to.” It’s up to the applicant to figure out how to design something, he said. “I expect they might end up doing a large detention facility” – a big underground tank to hold water for a controlled release post-storm. “What we don’t want to do is take a situation where we have flooding and add more impervious surface to the mix” to make that flooding work.
Rokicki interjected that she had spoken earlier in the day with the geotechnical engineer with whom she’d been working on the creek-upgrade project, regarding the difference between 100-year floods (“we’d all get wiped out anyway”) and 10-year floods, in which this would make a difference.
Paul Lambert said the estimate that the site development would result in only 10 percent more impervious coverage made no sense to him – it had to be underestimated. Suder thought that percentage might have referred to the easement road – which of course would not address the future development, since this is just the subdivision/plat change being proposed now.
Rene Kiefer, who said he lives on the other side of the property, is wondering about the street parking that the proposal mentions. “If one car parks on the street, it literally becomes one lane,” he pointed out, and voiced concerns about cracked pavement, running water, etc. “How’s it going to be maintained … and who’s going to pay for it?” he wondered. “It’s like running through a mud puddle … even when it’s not flooding.”
Another resident from 23rd pointed out “there’s no street parking there.”
“Unimproved streets, no curbs, no sidewalks, no drains,” added another voice.
Then Rob, who said he lives across the street, added, “The parking’s ridiculous,” but he had a question beyond that. He wondered if there would be another meeting regarding feedback when the planners offer it. “We generally don’t have two public meetings on projects like this,” said Rips, while stressing he is open to comments via e-mail and phone. Rob then brought up a report that there might be six homes proposed instead of eight – how would they know? Rips noted that everything in the file is made available online – it’s difficult to make notifications, but they can keep checking, or contact Rips. And, Rob asked, what if the creek-widening project went through – how would it affect this? The city reps weren’t clear.
Suder said, “if this applicant is able to get through a number of issues we put before them … and all the code issues are resolved, presumably we would need to approve the project. If there are changes later, that wouldn’t change the plats.” Harder to say if it would affect development on the lots, he said.
The neighbors said they just submitted their flood-control plans within the past two weeks, after getting documents in late January, but “it was a first time we got a glance through,” and the funding issues remain.
Another attendee said the city can approve this and flooding can result but the city is not liable, “Just remember these guys are not going to help you once that happens.”
Asking about the wetland and a promise of “mitigation per code,” one attendee wondered where that owuld happen. “Would it be within THIS watershed?”
Suder said it depends – if it’s a “type 4,” they might not have to replace it with a wetland. But he doesn’t know yet what the classification is, though, Rips said, it might be protected within the “riparian corridor buffer.”
The next neighbor to speak said, “It’s quite apparent that this neighborhood does not want the city to issue a permit for eight homes on a site that had one … eight houses means 16 cars at a minimum, and all the runoff that comes with that … it’s quite simple, when you drive around the city and see what’s happened to our single-family lots, the McMansions or McApartments that have been put on them, the density issue s… are becoming alarming to say the least. I think the community has made its feelings clear. … This is too much for that site.”
Another man worried about home values being “dragged down” by vacant homes that already exist, including houses up for sale and not selling, never mind new ones to be built. “Is there an overview of what they’re going to do with all this other stuff sitting there, not doing anything?”
One woman said 23rd SW has two houses for sale, three vacant but no signage, another two that “look like they are probably unoccupied.”
Drainage and flooding issues are everywhere, pointed out area resident Mike Dady, who said he lives on 23rd, “a rudimentary country road cut back in 1900,” and now “the onslaught of single-family-home development is occurring” (as mentioned toward the end of our January story, and in other development updates).
Dady mentioned a project by his house in which he said DPD and Seattle Public Utilities were not talking to each other about additional stormwater being dumped into “a country lane ditch.” He brought up other projects from the past. Even when solutions were proposed on some sites, he said, they were carried out poorly, and run down the street, clogging up drainage every time it rains. “So I’m very reluctant to buy off on any of these ECA-type projects,” Dady said. “We’ve got a lot of drainage problems around the area – we know because we live here. The developers who are in the room do not live here.”
Wiker spoke again, reading from a document saying it’s the city’s policy to protect wetlands, slopes, habitat, etc. from adverse drainage impacts. “Projects may be requied to provide drainge control ..” So, she said, how do you determine the mitigating measures that are to be (implemented)?”
Suder said, “The starting point is, what do they need to do under the Critical Areas ordinance? This application has not demonstrated how it dealt with myriad points” under CAO. Maybe, he said, “there’s some authority outside (that ordinance),” but so far, that remains the starting point.
An attendee asked if the property owner has an “indefinite time frame” to respond to the questions from the city. “Is there a deadline after you’ve (asked) him to respond to you?”
“Not really a deadline,” said Suder. “… We give projects a tall order to fill sometimes. .. When we write the correction letters and send them out, we set it off to the side.”
Rips added that they don’t “look at it piecemeal” – they need to get all the responses back before they return to the application. Suder said the timeframe is “not quite indefinite,” but they can have “many many months.”
If and when it goes through, they were then told, street signage/traffic control will be vital.
Yet another neighbor mentioned a site short-platted years ago, and one pre-existing house, while someone is buying another lot and told her they have “every intention of short-platting” the lot. “It seems like it doesn’t matter if it’s environmentally critical or not …” She is worried about the wildlife, the trees, the water, “everything I love … it’s all going away.”
“The one person in the room that doesn’t have a say is the fish in that creek – and I suggest you guys start there and work your way back … if they wouldn’t like it, I suggest you don’t do it.”
From the back: “24th is the Longfellow (Creek) Trail .. you walk down the street when you are walking the Longfellow Trail.” “And it’s constantly busy .. so much effort has gone into it, to throw that out ..” Her voice trailed out.
Others reinforced that it’s busy.
What about “clustered houses”? asked Dady. Suder talked about the thought in the past that on some larger lots, with portions of critical areas, it might make sense to cluster houses on lots that aren’t in the critical area on the lot. If this kind of proposal were made on this site, there would be a new notice and a new process – it would create smaller lots in order to preserve the sensitive land.
“What would the height of the structure be?” asked an attendee. Under the general rules for single-family-home development, “30 feet with a ridge line up to 35 feet,” said Rips – three stories.
What if the plans are just for showing to another potential buyer? the city reps were asked. That could be the case – if this is approved, the site would be subdivided, then the owner could sell the lots, or seek to build on them.
The neighbors were informing each other, as well as the city reps, as they spoke. One thought she’d heard some things to be concerned about – “Say you make recommendation. How do you enforce if they’re actually following them.” Rips said, “We have construction inspectors who go out.”
Suder said there might be a “line of non-disturbance” which could even require a fence during construction – “this is the point at which the disturbance stops.” Rips interjected, “There are best practices regarding critical areas.”
“We can’t guarantee everyone will follow all the rules,” Suder acknowledged.
“So who is responsible if something happens?” asked an attendee.
“We can’t make comments like that,” said Suder.
“if that developer floods Mrs. Cunningham’s house, who’s responsible?” pressed the attendee.
“I couldn’t even say,” said Suder.
“Would the Department of Planning and Development be responsible?”
Suder hesitated, “I would hope not … But that’s the kind of thing that litigation is about.”
After some back and forth about responsibility in terms of trouble, Frank Cunningham said he had read about a site where a building was supposed to be removed before a short plat was approved – and yet it’s never been removed.
“You’re always welcome to call our complaint line” or file a complaint online, Suder said. (Here’s how.) “Anonymously” (if preferred), chimed in Rips.
“Most of the conditions, we try to tie to something they need from us,” Suder explained.
With a bit of time remaining in the meeting, Wiker had another point to make from documents – about vegetation removal and a report that said they would “be keeping 19 existing trees and take out the rest of them.” … “We would be really unhappy to see that lot clear cut and then nothing else happen with it, so we are concerned about that.”
Sometimes mitigation involves native plants, Rips noted.
Cutting that probably shouldn’t have been done was mentioned. “Did you call” DPD? Suder asked. “We didn’t know we could,” was the reply.
The questions ebbed. Suder noted, “The only reason we have SEPA with this project was for the critical areas – and that’s what we use it for,” not regarding density or parking areas. “For them to have a project that’s going to move forward, it’s going to be a lot more responsive to the site than” what’s been proposed so far.
In summary, a neighbor reiterated that they know something will be built … it’s just the size, and the effects.
Rips said they’ll be awaiting response from the applicant, and then eventually they would write a report for the Master Use Permit application. Once their decision is out, there’s a two-week appeal period in which anyone who disagrees with it can appeal it to the city Hearing Examiner.
SOMETHING TO SAY IN THE MEANTIME? You can e-mail Rips at any point in the process, at email@example.com.