May 25, 1998
Water district plans put on hold
by Andrew Walgamott
WOODINVILLE--Plans to build a new Woodinville Water District headquarters have been put on hold for now. Bob Bandarra, district manager, can only point out where the new 6,800 square foot administration building would have gone, though he speaks confidently that it will be built. That's at odds with a King County Hearing Examiner's ruling.
In April, examiner Stafford Smith granted an appeal that denied the district a permit to build the structure on their ten-acre compound off of Woodinville-Duvall Road. The district's board of commissioners has since voted to appeal the examiner's ruling in King County Superior Court. They are asking that it be reversed and they be allowed to build. But Smith's decision brought up a deeper issue. He implied the district should never have built there in the first place. Utility officials believe otherwise and say the issue has cost implications for their 26,000 customers.
Expansion tolerated in past
Nearly 30 years of building at the water district have never been questioned until recently. It puzzles Bandarra. "Nobody's ever appealed the issue until now," he said. Asked, why now? he answers, "Exactly, exactly."
The district bought the property at 17238 Woodinville-Duvall Road in 1962, according to Bandarra, and moved into an existing barn. In 1968, they got the okay from the King County planning department head to store equipment and supplies on the land. The district's attorney then asked if they could also build an office, warehouse and a storage yard there. The county replied with a letter "implying that a satisfactory response had been previously given," according to Smith. In his reading of the letter, Smith wrote "It simply evaded [the attorney's] question, but the District chose to regard it as conferring the county's blessing on their plans."
It set the stage for the continual additions to the facility that the district and King County Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES) contend allow the utility to build there now. In 1979, the county allowed the district to expand their office from 1,300 square feet to 4,100 square feet. In 1989, the district underwent a major expansion that included a new 5,400 square foot maintenance building, a 5,200 square foot vehicle storage building, a 1,000 square foot fuel and wash facility and an 800 square foot storage pad. Then, last December DDES approved a conditional use permit (CUP) for the district to build the new $1 million administration building on the southeast corner of their property.
It looked like it would be business as usual, except this time Barbara Kelson, a neighbor who lives just west of the district, appealed the CUP to the hearing examiner in January. Fundamentally, Kelson's complaint centers on the existing equipment yard and has little to do with the proposed administration building. Kelson said that the noise from district trackhoes, backhoes and beeping trucks at all-hours is incompatible with the neighborhood in a recent telephone interview. "I've been awakened many times in the night at 1 or 2 [a.m.] when they have their trucks going over there," said Kelson, who has owned the property for 20 years and lived there since the late 1980s. Bandarra said operating hours were daytime only, but admitted that if there's an emergency in the night anywhere in their 40-square-mile service area, they must respond.
Property value also concerns Kelson. "We had a nice view of the Cascades. Now all we see is the water district," she said. Though the district's facilities are generally concealed by large trees, a 15-foot gap in the foliage where a septic tank is allows Kelson to see into their equipment yard. Her real estate agent has testified she lost at least one potential buyer who didn't want to live with the view. Ironically, Bandarra says that if the district had been allowed to build, the tank would have been relocated.
There is another underlying issue. Last June, the district's board of commissioners denied Kelson a variance to extend a 280 foot-long six-inch side sewer from N.E. 145th St. to Apple Farm Inn, a Gilman Village-type retail complex she is building near the Hollywood Hill Schoolhouse. The district's policy is that side sewers can only be 150 feet long, though longer ones have been granted in the area in the past.
The district will instead require her to install an eight-inch sewer main. A side sewer would have been "considerably cheaper" than the main, according to a district official. Kelson said there was no connection between the denial and her appeal. For the record, Bandarra termed it a "coincidence."
The road to the appeal unwound differently, according to Kelson. She said the district told her to talk to King County after she expressed concern with their expansion. There she said she found out that the district was on shaky ground for being where they are. Though DDES denied her initial appeal, she went to the hearing examiner.
In his ruling, Smith wrote that under county code in 1968, the district's facilities were never a permitted use. "The real question is whether a 30-year history of administrative tolerance of these unlawful activities has somehow transformed them into a legal non-conforming use," Smith wrote. He said that under Washington state case law, official tolerance doesn't mean the actions are okay. Permit denied.
But Bandarra says the utility has followed proper procedures. "When we asked in 1968, we believe the county gave us a variance that allowed us to build a utility facility at this location," he said. "They further substantiated that position by allowing our expansion in 1979 with our administration building and in 1989 with our new operations building." He noted that neither of those expansions had been appealed and wonders why Kelson didn't appeal in 1989. "I didn't realize that heavy equipment would be over there," she said, adding that the district told her they would screen their yard with landscaping then.
Will district be forced out?
The key issue for the district is whether the ruling will force them to become a split campus. Officials say that could cost their customers. The hearing examiner said the district could only expand at their current site if there were no other commercial or industrial zoned lands in their service area. But there is plenty of suitably zoned land in the nearby City of Woodinville which the district serves. Bandarra said the district was beginning to be pressed for space. Administration may have to be sent elsewhere. "It's not in the best interest of the ratepayers for that to happen," he warned. While some business could be done over the phone, it would also require car trips back and forth between facilities. "You're not going to send a big set of blueprints over the Internet," Bandarra noted.
Ken Goodwin, president of the board of commissioners said another option was to remodel, though he wasn't sure that would be allowed. There was a chance that everything could have been resolved between the parties. At a pre-conference hearing, Smith suggested they come to some agreement. But Kelson said the district's attorneys wouldn't. "I was surprised they wouldn't put in landscaping or do anything to be a good neighbor, especially when they never had a legal reason to be there," Kelson said. Bandarra maintains that Kelson has never come to the district and instead went straight to appeal. As it is, the issue has become a stand-off for Kelson and Woodinville Water. The equipment yard will remain, the gap in the foliage won't be filled, and the district can't build.
The last paragraph in Smith's decision contains this wry observation:
"In light of obvious defects in its legal posture, it is surprising that the district did not heed the examiner's advice and seek a settlement with [Kelson]. This might have allowed an increase in the [district's] facilities in exchange for more rigorous attention to controlling off site impacts. If such an agreement had been reached with Ms. Kelson, a withdrawal of her appeal would have left the DDES administrative conditional use decision intact, notwithstanding its inadequate legal foundation. As it is, our decision merely preserves the status quo, an outcome which neither the [district] nor [Kelson] are likely to relish."
A court date has yet to be set.