September 30, 2002
A bus barn and a sewage plant?
by Jeanette Knutson
Changes to Snohomish County's General Policy Plan, Section LU 1.A.9, would allow expansion of Snohomish County's Urban Growth Area for public or institutional uses such as churches or schools.
Introduction of such subtle language changes to Snohomish County law, say anti-Brightwater activists, is the thin end of the wedge.
Changes such as this one, complete with "fuzzy, undefined terms," ("institutional uses" remains undefined; "public," according to current Snohomish law, refers to utilities, fire, police, city or county needs) will create loopholes that could allow for the Northshore School District's Support Services Facility - the bus barn - to co-locate with the proposed Brightwater sewage treatment plant, said Tim Joseph, member of Just the Facts, an anti-Brightwater group.
Such a co-location would be a "double whammy" for residents of the Route 9 area who see themselves as having to put up with potential air pollution, light pollution, noise pollution, traffic, acres of pavement and threats to Little Bear Creek if a 17-acre bus barn moved into their neighborhood.
If a 36-million-gallon-a-day sewage treatment plant (56 million gallons a day when operating at full capacity) moved in as well, there could be potential odor problems, the possibility of compromising the local water table/aquifer, a possible drop in property values, land stability issues, threats to Little Bear Creek, not to mention a potential diminishment of the City of Woodinville's image, amongst other possible impacts.
Several members of the Little Bear Creek Protective Association (LBCPA), an anti-bus-barn, pro-Brightwater group, have been fighting the bus barn for years.
The school district already owns 17 acres on the northern portion of the 110-acre site that King County is eyeballing for its "essential public facility," Brightwater. The district's land lies outside the urban growth boundary.
In 1998, the district received a conditional use permit, allowing them to move forward with their "support services" project, allowing them to build something considered "light industrial" in a residentially zoned area.
A member of the Little Bear Creek Protective Association appealed the permit, but the Snohomish County Council upheld the hearing examiner's decision.
LBCPA members then filed an appeal in Snohomish County Superior Court. The judge remanded the case back to the hearing examiner for failing to consider the Growth Management Act and the Comprehensive Plan in making a determination as to whether the project was urban or rural.
If the project were, indeed, rural, the hearing examiner would either have to deny the project or make enough changes to provide parity consistent with the rural determination.
Members of Just the Facts think the hearing examiner is dragging his feet, delaying final determination until January or February 2003, said Linda Gray, group member.
Members fear, said Joseph, that if the changes to the Snohomish County General Policy Plan became effective sooner than the hearing examiner rules on the bus barn issue, NSD would not be required to obtain the long-sought conditional use permit, since the Urban Growth Area could be expanded "for public or institutional uses such as churches or schools."
Just the Facts members also think the proposed language changes would make it significantly more difficult for neighbors to fight the bus barn and the sewage plant.
"We believe," said Joseph, "that the changes to the Snohomish County ordinances ... may be intended as a method to avoid the legal roadblocks which have so far prevented the bus barn's arrival in our neighborhood. (They) may also be a method to defeat some of the potential future challenges that will be made to the sewage plant. This would mean a potential to have our neighborhood become the home of both the Northshore School District's bus barn and King County's Brightwater Sewage Plant."
Northshore School District (NSD) spokeswoman Pamela Steel said, "No, (there is no intention of co-locating with Brightwater). "We are working with the county to try to locate another suitable location for (the bus barn)."
Steele also said the district is trying to work out fair financial compensation for school district land that the Brightwater project would use, given that it appears the Brightwater plant may eventually be built on the Route 9 site.
Capital Projects Director for Northshore School District Debra Hudacek said, "We realize there's a likelihood Brightwater (will come to the Route 9 site). We don't have a new home or place yet (for the support services facility). We are looking at options, but we do not have a definitive place to relocate to. But we are pursuing it."
Hudacek said she felt it was in the school district's best interests to look into other options, but the district had to find something that was zoned properly for the district's needs.
She also said it was the district's understanding that Brightwater required the entire 110-acre property.
Brightwater Manager Christy True responded to Just the Facts' allegation that Phase 2 Brightwater documents indicate a community advantage to a Route 9 Brightwater as being the "Potential partnership opportunity with Northshore School District."
"Earlier on," said True, "we did look at (a school district/Brightwater partnership) as an option. We concluded after talking to them and considering the buffering requirements of the (plant) ... and the fact that Washington DOT (Department of Transportation) has plans to widen Route 9, thereby taking some of the land, that it wasn't going to be feasible (to co-locate with NSD)."
True said Brightwater is currently trying to help NSD find suitable land and they're talking to NSD to evaluate their property so that Brightwater can purchase it at some point.
Save Little Bear Creek Protective Association President and co-litigant in the suit challenging Northshore School District's conditional use permit Greg Stephens said he was the first person to testify against the proposed LU 1.A.9 amendment at the Sept. 24 Snohomish County Planning Commission public hearing.
"(These language changes) are a way to make an end-run around (our conditional use permit lawsuit)," he said.
Stephens surmises the school district is behind the proposed code changes.
"I feel that (the amendment) most greatly benefits the school district before any other visible beneficiary, and that for the county at large, it makes the wording too vague with regard to large projects. It opens the door to jails, prisons, waste. (The changes) will result in no longer having to undergo public scrutiny and due diligence in long range county planning. (There will be a) lack of transparency in the public process (if this amendment is adopted)," said Stephens.
Stephens explained that the Sept. 24 Planning Commission hearing ran late and that the commission did not have time to collect all public testimony and deliberate on the amendments. They will do so in early October.
The commission's recommendation will be sent to the Snohomish County Council and they will address it sometime in November or December. The council will also take public testimony and deliberate.
Stephens feels the county is trying to pull a fast one with these language changes and that "if adopted, there will be court challenges all over the place," he said.
He and others said that King County made the school district two offers of other pieces of land in exchange for their Route 9 property. Apparently the school district has not responded to either offer.
Neither the school district nor Brightwater officials will confirm the offers were made.
Another source said the school district has found a piece of land that they like, one different from the two offered by King County, one with a big price tag.
The problem is King County can only pay fair market value for its land purchases.
Stephens said (the school district) is posturing to drive up the price of their Route 9 land. With a new zoning designation making the land light industrial and no need for a conditional use permit, it puts the land in another price league, he said.
"They could be looking at a 10-fold price increase," he said.
And Stephens' lawsuit would disappear by default.
Save Little Bear Creek Protective Association member and co-litigant in the lawsuit challenging the Northshore School District's conditional use permit for the bus barn Debby Nicely is more optimistic than Stephens.
Nicely said, "There is not going to be co-existence (of the bus barn and Brightwater).
"... If (these amendments to the Snohomish County General Policy Plan) are an attempt to alter the UGA (Urban Growth Area), it is not an attempt that is likely to win. There was a crowd of people at the (Sept. 24) Snohomish County Planning Commission public hearing against (such changes)," said Nicely.
She believes the proposed amendments relate to Southwest Snohomish County generally, that there is no specific reference to Brightwater in any of the language.
Nicely further believes references to "schools" in the proposed language changes mean "classroom only," not bus barns, she said.
After the hearing on Sept. 24, Nicely said she felt a lot better because there had been a lot of forceful arguments against the proposed changes, changes she termed "inappropriate and challengeable."
Kamuron Gurol, Planning Manager for Snohomish County Department of Planning and Development Services, said he thought the LU 1.A.9 change was initiated at the Snohomish County Council level. Gurol thought motivation for code language changes was an experience the County Council had in trying to allow for the building of the Maltby Christian Alliance Assembly. The Council's decision to allow the church was brought before the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Board and overturned because the County wanted to expand the Urban Growth Area, said Gurol.
Other than the Maltby church issue, Gurol did not know what was behind the proposed language changes.
A Snohomish County Council analyst said he did not know anything about the General Policy Plan changes. He said he felt uncomfortable speaking on behalf of the council without conferring with them first. He could not confer with council until after this paper went to press.
The long and short of it is potential Snohomish County code changes are underfoot. The county is entertaining language changes "that could have devastating consequences on Snohomish County communities," said a Just the Facts member.
Snohomish County is considering adding "exceptions" to its laws.
To date, Countywide Planning Policies do not contain exceptions. Nor does the Snohomish County Buildable Lands Code.
Attorneys from the law firm Helsell Fetterman who represent the Little Bear Creek Protective Association submitted a letter to the Snohomish County Planning Commission at last week's public hearing, saying "the (LU 1.A.9) proposal's legality is highly questionable, and the proposal could greatly undermine the County's GMA (Growth Management Act) planning processes and open it to costly litigation."