(Rendering of new Arbor Heights Elementary)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
They say they’re not trying to stop it from being built.
But neighbors and others concerned about the new, larger Arbor Heights Elementary School say something is missing from the plan: A full-scale environmental review.
So they appealed the ruling that the project doesn’t need that kind of review, and their appeal led to a hearing that lasted much of the day Thursday in a meeting room at Seattle Public Schools headquarters in SODO.
It brought some surprises – including last-minute district research exploring some of the points for which the challengers said an environmental review was needed before the new school is built on the site of the old one starting this summer.
Appeal hearings don’t result in instant decisions, so a written report will be forthcoming. But here’s how the hearing unfolded:
First, a bit about the process. The burden of proof is on the appellant to show why the ruling was so wrong or damaging that it must be overturned. They have to put a case together at their own expense; unlike a criminal court, they are not guaranteed legal representation. So Chris Jackins, a longtime district watchdog working with neighbors, presented an opening and closing statement himself, calling witnesses inbetween the two, while the district was represented by high-profile local land-use lawyer Rich Hill, whose witnesses included district employees and other experts working on/for the project.
The document at the heart of the appeal is this – the Determination of Non-Significance and SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) checklist, released by the district in March:
Presenting the appellants’ case first, Jackins contended that the the checklist included “errors and omissions” and that the project would result in a “school (that) is too large for the neighborhood, increasing up to 90% in size” (from 47,000 square feet currently to 90,000 square feet), with “probable significant environmental impacts” including, he outlined:
-Traffic and parking effects
-Since it’s at the far south edge of the district, it would draw from farther away to fill its potential 660-student capacity, increasing pressure to close nearby schools such as Roxhill (he brought up the AH/Roxhill merger that was briefly proposed and withdrawn a few years ago)
-Residential neighbors affected on all four sides:
-Drainage, pollution, street changes on SW 105th related to the school’s drop-off/pickup, plus speeding on residential streets,
-Zoning departure (exception) for electronic message board
-District to remove 50 trees but doesn’t say how many are significant, so “impacts have not been formally characterized”
-No formal archaelogical survey conducted, but Jackins suggested consultation with the Duwamish Tribe
-Concerns about whether building materials will be reused
Regarding traffic, a major concern for those in the area, he said, is the fact that Westside School (WSB sponsor) is moving to a former church a few blocks east on SW 104th (as reported here, construction has just begun), but, Jackins said, the Arbor Heights project’s traffic study didn’t factor this in, while the Westside study did (see it here). The 35th/104th intersection between the two schools would see a sizable increase in “traffic load.”
But the neighborhood-street traffic increase weighed even more heavily on the minds of neighbors such as the first witness, Carmen Ragghianti, who read a letter she had sent to the district. After more than 20 years in the neighborhood, she said, she’s happy to see a new school on the way, but the planned enrollment increase raised safety concerns, and she wondered if the district had gotten the full picture by studying traffic on only two days, one regular school day, and one day when students weren’t on campus because it was a professional-development day for teachers.
Another area resident, Robert Femiano, was called next. He described himself as a former Arbor Heights Elementary parent and teacher who had spent 14 of his 37 teaching years at AHES. The Arbor Heights area’s dearth of sidewalks raised a safety concern, he said: “Increasing traffic without the safety of sidewalks seems to me to be playing with fire.” The potential 660-student population also could lead to increased health problems, he said, noting that his wife works as a school nurse. And he wondered where the students would be coming from, if Roxhill is remaining open, while pointing out that the former EC Hughes Elementary will be available in a few years (once Westside School moves out) and that the former Denny International Middle School site still has a large empty space identified as a potential future elementary-school location. “As a longtime educator, I could not support the choice for a megaschool” if something smaller was an option.
Nearby longtime resident Rex Long was next to be called, listing parking and traffic as his concerns, saying the 35th/104th intersection had “a lot of action” including crashes over the years.
He was followed by a more recent arrival, Brian Pope. While stressing that he likes the idea of a new school, he said that since he and his wife both work from home, they “get to see things that most people do not see,” including that the current pickup/dropoff area is not used that way by many, who instead look around for a parking space and then walk their children over to school. (The current AHES campus has very few of its own spaces.)
Some walk their children across 35th, east to west, noted area resident Rosa Long, who was called next.
She was followed by an architect living in the neighborhood who also reiterated that she’s glad a new school is coming but surprised at its size. The current documentation “doesn’t give a full picture of the impact on the neighborhood,” she contended, including the impact during construction, with trucks hauling excavated material. “We don’t know how many trucks it’s going to be, but we know it’s going to be a lot.”
The illuminated signboard concerned her too; she suggested it would be better placed in the center of the property.
After two hours, it was time for Hill to start calling witnesses on the district’s behalf. The project’s lead architect, Ross Parker from Bassetti Architects, was first. To the point of 660 students making for a “megaschool,” he said the school’s enrollment has been larger in the past, and that the new building will have more square footage per student than the current one does. Outlining the new school’s pickup/dropoff/parking areas, he said it would have 55 parking spaces, which is 47 more than the current school has (yet fewer than the 71 city code would require, for which a “departure” was approved). Most of the dropoff was expected to be focused on the northeast corner off 104th, and there will be a holding area for up to 20 cars, with an exit to 105th. Buses will continue loading and unloading on the street, and a departure was approved for that too.
Drainage issues raised in the appeal, he suggested, would be addressed by features including the plan to pave a “ditch” along the property line, with a new curb, gutter, sidewalk, and street trees; the water in the ditch will go into a culvert with “the intention … that it will alleviate any stormwater problems.” Improvements, he said, are planned along both 104th and 105th. The new site will have half as much impervious surface as the current one, including a grass playfield replacing asphalt, he added, also mentioning that 83 trees are planned to replace the 50 slated for removal.
The committee that considered the proposed departures also required screening to make sure homes wouldn’t be affected, and, Parker said, it won’t face homes anyway.
The next witness was Tod McBryan from Heffron Transportation, which did the traffic study for the AHES project.
He acknowledged that traffic “will continue to be busy and somewhat congested … around the site” during morning and afternoon. But he said their study showed that the project would increase traffic by 172 trips in the morning, 128 in the afternoon, and generate “peak parking demand” for 92 vehicles during the day, 60 percent of which would be handled on site, with “the remaining (to) overflow to 104th and possibly 105th.”
He then revealed a supplemental study had been done to address the potential compounding of effects with Westside School coming in a few blocks away. Westside currently “staggers arrivals,” he noted, while Arbor Heights has all arrive and depart at the same time. Under current schedules, the two schools would have a 20-minute overlap, McBryan said, but they don’t believe it will worsen the level of service (usability) at the 35th/104th intersection. They will recommend, he said, that the district monitors the start times of both schools when Arbor Heights is about to open, and if there seems to be an overlap, AH might consider a change. Plus, he said, the School Board is considering opening elementaries earlier, so that might make the whole point moot.
As for one appeal witness’s mention of a collision problem at 35th/104th, McBryan said they reviewed four years of data and found no collisions reported at that intersection; the Westside study, he said, found the same thing, and went back all the way to 2008. (The witness who mentioned crashes had been asked if they were reported to police, and he had said yes.)
An arborist who got involved in the project “late in the game” was the next witness, saying two trees of note had been found – one a madrone, “considered exceptional at all sizes by the city of Seattle,” the other a birch. The SEPA checklist mentioned a plan to save and transplant nine trees, two of which were two-foot-trunked Douglas firs; transplanting those types of trees doesn’t work, said the arborist, but now the two are planned to be kept in their current spots anyway. The other seven were palm trees and the district might consider how to get them into the hands of someone who could transplant and save them.
Next witness addressed the archaeological points, saying almost all the dirt to be moved off the site was Pleistocene-era soil “which predates human occupation … we would not expect to find buried cultural resources at this location.” But, she added, there’s a document outlining what would be done “if something unexpected was found.”
The project manager from Heery International said the district does have a plan for reusing materials from demolition, at least 50 percent, and that it will be “tracked on a monthly basis.” And the final witness called by Hill was Lucy Morello (at right in photo above), who has been overseeing capital projects for the district. She added more information about the illuminated sign, saying its use would be restricted to 7 am-7 pm on days the school was in use, and that it wouldn’t be used in the summer, or on holidays or weekends.
In a brief closing statement, Jackins contended that “everything about this project seems to be rushed,” and he said that the supplemental studies presented by the district had not been done before the SEPA checklist was issued, so the information hadn’t been presented to the public, which should have had the chance to review it in the environmental process: “This is not the way to do an environmental review.”
For his closing statement, Hill said that doing “significant work” after an appeal was filed is not unusual, since “the respondent has the right to develop evidence,” and he said all that evidence “reinforced the (Determination of Non-Significance) decision” not to require a full environmental review. He added, “There really has been no successful effort on part of appellants to demonstrate any significant adverse impacts.”
The presiding hearing examiner, Margaret Klockars, said she expected to present Superintendent José Banda with her written decision within 10 days.