The Washington State Department of Transportation and the Stillaguamish Flood Control District have filed suit against the City of Arlington over its plans to develop Island Crossing, and in particular the plans to put a car dealership in the area.
Both WSDOT and the Flood Control District are entering the fray over a recent decision by a city hearing examiner to give Dwayne Lane's Arlington Chevrolet a conditional use permit to built a new 4.5-acre lot on land adjacent to I-5.
But WSDOT's and the FCD's objectives are not the same. WSDOT is suing over relatively technical issues related to projected flood levels, whereas the Flood Control District is seeking to throw out the permit entirely.
Regardless, the city is planning on defending the hearing examiner's decision against both charges, city spokeswoman Kristin Banfield said.
Tom Lane, whose father Dwayne Lane purchased 14.3 acres of Island Crossing in 1993, said he's hopeful the latest hitch in his plans is resolved in short order.
"I'm a patient person, otherwise I wouldn't have made it through 20 years," Lane said.
The land Lane owns is just a small part of the roughly 110 acres that comprise Island Crossing. The entire area lies within the Stillaguamish River's flood plain. In December 2010, the river crested at 21.16 feet, deluging local businesses and leading to a short closure of part of I-5. Environmental groups such as Futurewise have long worried that development in the area would exacerbate flooding.
Much of the dispute over the years has centered on the battle between the city and Snohomish County. The county placed Island Crossing in Arlington's urban growth area, paving the way for eventual annexation. The state Supreme Court upheld that decision in 2008, the city annexed the area, and in early 2009 a divided Snohomish County Council voted not to challenge a Superior Court decision that upheld the annexation.
Those decisions cleared the way for Lane to submit development plans for the dealership. The hearing examiner approved Lane's permit Oct. 2, attaching a condition that the car lot would not contribute to any additional water rising on surrounding lots or downstream during a major flood.
The hearing examiner loosened the requirement on Nov. 13, after Lane appealed. Lane's project is now instead prohibited from adding to more than a 2-inch rise in water levels during a 100-year flood, or to a 7-inch rise during a 25-year or 50-year flood.
WSDOT is seeking to reimpose the earlier flood-level limit on Lane's development plan, and its suit cites a city consultant's estimation and the hearing examiner's findings that the car lot would indeed raise flood levels above the set levels, and would result in disruptions of traffic on a section of I-5 that carries 90,000 vehicles daily.
The Stillaguamish FCD's suit goes one step futher and seeks to vacate the hearing examiner's original decision approving the permit, or both the reconsideration decision and the permit itself. The suit cites not just the estimated flood-level rise, but also factors such as fish habitat, public health and safety, and the cumulative effects of further development in Island Crossing, of which the car dealership is just the "vanguard." It also says the city may have misused public funds by supporting Lane's permit application before a hearing examiner and not serving the interests of the larger community.
The combination of flooding forecasts and the history of recent flooding in the area makes the city's permit decision a bad one, said Henry Lippek, attorney for the Stillaguamish FCD. In addition to environmental concerns, closing I-5 during a flood would have a larger economic impact on Arlington than last year's bridge collapse in Skagit County did to its communities, because there's no viable detour route in Snohomish County.
"It is inconceivable to me how the city could accept any plan that might increase the risk of I-5 closing during a flood," Lippek said.
Arlington City Attorney Steve Peiffle said that the lawsuits were not entirely unexpected, as this is the first time a specific development plan has been submitted. A decision in favor of the city would mostly clear the way for construction to begin.
"I frankly expect to some extent that the opponents of the project will try to stretch it out as long as they can," Peiffle said. "They've managed to do that for 20 years now."
Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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