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We mentioned on Tuesday morning that five notable meetings were happening in West Seattle last night. Between your two co-publishers and three of the very good reporters we are able to tap on an as-assigned basis, we covered them all, including the second West Seattle meeting held as part of the regional jail-site-selection process, with one WS site (Google Street View above) now remaining in the running. Many of the same people who spoke at the first one last June (WSB coverage here) were at this one too, as was David Whelan, reporting for WSB – here’s his story:
By David Whelan
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
The mood at Tuesday evening’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) “scoping” meeting for the proposed West Seattle jail site was one of pent-up frustration.
The purpose of the public hearing at the Brockey Conference Center at South Seattle Community College was for agencies, organizations and the public to comment on the scope of the regional jail site proposed for Highland Park Way and West Marginal Way (map).
“Scoping” refers to the practice of identifying any significant adverse environmental impacts that might result from building the facility. Under SEPA (the State Environmental Policy Act), any project is required to give communities and citizens the opportunity to provide input into the Environmental Impact Statement.
While the crowd of 20-25 neighbors for the most part held to the general ground rules – attendees were asked at the outset to focus on what topics should be studied as part of the EIS and not on stating an opinion for or against the proposal – it was clear that many Highland Park residents have grown weary of the lengthy decision making process.
Since July, the North/East Cities (NEC) planning group (composed of officials from 23 cities in King County, including Seattle, Bellevue, and Shoreline) has been in the process of narrowing down a list of preferred sites for a new regional misdemeanor-offender jail. As announced last month, the West Marginal/Highland Park Way site is one of six locations remaining on the list, which expanded when other King County cities nominated possible sites.
Tuesday was an opportunity for Highland Park residents — and anyone else interested in the West Seattle site — not only to add their two cents on elements of the EIS, but also to state their opinions on the jail process as a whole.
Among the 15 speakers who came to the microphone to speak, however, it was clear that many had done their homework on the environmental elements authorized as part of the SEPA process. In fact, Dorsol Plants, outgoing chair of the Highland Park Action Committee (which has led the fight against West Seattle jail sites), said HPAC members had compiled a list of talking points relevant to the environmental categories.
“This was a more formal process,” Plants said. Previous community forums held in December had such large crowds that city officials reportedly had trouble recording all the comments. According to Plants, the more structured format of the scoping process ensures that all opinions get heard – and documented.
“Here, with a court reporter present, it gave us a chance to keep more of our comments on the record,” he said.
A large portion of the comments focused on the nearby West Duwamish Greenbelt. Several attendees expressed concern that the wildlife there was not always constrained to the greenbelt proper. “I saw a heron standing at a bus stop the other day” said one member, referring to the need to analyze the habitat and migration patterns of the greenbelt dwellers.
HPAC Vice Chair Rory Denovan noted that the distance between the proposed jail site and the downtown municipal courts would have an adverse impact due to the amount of auto travel required. Denovan commented that both the air quality and salmon habitat would be compromised by the increased fuel consumption.
Resident Becca Fong added that surface and groundwater impacts would need to be investigated as well. With the site at the bottom of a large hill, she was concerned about runoff into the Duwamish River – already, she noted, a Superfund site.
Highland Park Elementary teacher Laura Drake gave an impassioned statement on the need to consider the proximity of that school to the prison site. “Highland Park Elementary is less than one mile from the site,” she said. “That needs to be considered.”
Perhaps the most animated speaker was Pacific Plumbing owner Ed Sherman, whose business is located just across West Marginal Way from the site. Whether he was turning the mic to address the crowd directly or burning a dollar bill to demonstrate his thoughts on the effectiveness of a new jail in Highland Park, Sherman got the room’s attention.
He also brought up a laundry list of questions relating to the cost of the extra transport and employees he says will be required if there are separate jails in downtown and West Seattle. He then added that the decline of property values relating to a jail needed to be considered.
“There goes the nest egg for retirement or for the children,” he said. Later, he added that while inmates were being “rewarded” with a second jail, “business and home owners are getting punished.”
During his turn at the mic, HPAC chair Plants raised the point that Highland Park did not have the means to offer transition resources to released inmates. Citing a study that many recently released inmates are dependent on these agencies to control their behavior, he flatly stated that “we are dooming them to a life of failure.”
Other issues raised on Tuesday included the impact on transit resources, noise pollution, the effect of any possible South Park Bridge construction, and the need to preserve recreational activities and public art in the West Duwamish Greenbelt.
When the official EIS comments ended, audience members were free to add any additional comments outside of the recorded session. The most direct came from Drake, who asked when some type of resolution could be expected.
“When does it end?” she asked. “When does a decision get made? Over and over we go to these meetings and there’s nothing.”
City policy analysts emphasized that the cities involved were following a very specific process to comply with the state SEPA process. She added that the concerns expressed by Highland Park residences were shared by the other communities.
“Obviously, there’s no community out there saying ‘please put a jail here,’” she said.
Five additional jail sites – in Interbay, Shoreline, Bellevue, Unincorporated King County and downtown Seattle – are also under consideration for the regional jail site.
Many in attendance seemed to feel that downtown would ultimately end up as the proposed choice, with Plants referring to a “chess match” between King County and the City of Seattle over the county-owned land downtown.
Plants, who has announced his candidacy for City Council, noted that he would have time to run his entire campaign before the decision-making process ended.
“At this rate, if elected, I’d be joining the Council in time to work on the jail issue,” he said.
He also noted that since the start of the jail-planning process, few elected officials have attended public meetings on the subject.
“Unfortunately, that’s why you saw some of the frustration tonight,” he said. “It’s because we’re devoting time and resources to defending the community that should be invested in building the community.”
WHAT’S NEXT: The comment period for the scoping process extends through January 30th. Written comments can be submitted through the jail-project Web site at www.necmunicipaljail.org or via e-mail at MunicipalJailSEPA@Seattle.gov. The EIS will be drafted and resubmitted for public comment near the end of 2009, with the final draft being submitted in January of 2010. A preferred site will be identified sometime in 2010.