By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
EVERETT — Dog walkers and children have grown accustomed to having the run of a brushy field nestled among cul-de-sacs in the Silver Firs subdivision.
This spring, neighbors learned that Snohomish County was eyeing most of the field as a spot to build a new detention pond for stormwater.
That sent the Steen family scrambling to save what they have come to see as an overgrown playfield next door to their house. Others in this vast suburban neighborhood south of Everett and northeast of Mill Creek soon joined in. By summer, their efforts included cleanup parties, a door-to-door campaign and unusually big crowds flocking to homeowners meetings.
“We’re not opposed to proper drainage,” said Jenny Steen last week, in her gardening clothes after hauling off debris in a wheelbarrow. “It would change the usability of this space.”
As Steen spoke, her 2-year-old son, Connor, rushed around nearby with a toy lawn mower.
Staff at Snohomish County’s Surface Water Management Division didn’t expect the strong community reaction. The property, owned in common by the homeowners association, already is used, in part, for drainage. Now, county officials say that if homeowners don’t want the pond built, they’ll look elsewhere to build needed drainage projects.
County crews have completed one or two neighborhood drainage upgrades in the region in each of the past several years, but none this large, said Jim Blankenbeckler, a county surface water project manager.
“We looked at it as a unique opportunity,” Blankenbeckler said.
The area in question is about 2.6 acres. Neighbors said the county’s proposal would have gobbled up almost 1.9 acres, including a perimeter fence.
The project would cost an estimated $450,000, and with the right permits in place, could have started next year, Blankenbeckler said. The money would come from surface water fees collected with property taxes. The money must be spent to improve drainage or water quality.
The playfield area is supposed to help drain the surrounding neighborhood, built in the early 1980s.
That’s after Snohomish County adopted its first drainage code in 1979, but before major changes in 1998 that created higher standards for reducing downstream flooding, erosion and water pollution.
From the county’s perspective, the field in Silver Firs never drained properly. It only backs up after the wettest of weather, instead of holding water back and allowing it to drain slowly, which is how newer drainage systems work.
Building a new pond is a hard sell, though. That’s largely because the project doesn’t directly benefit its immediate neighbors — who would give up a recreation spot. The benefits are downstream, along Larimer Creek, about a half-mile away, to the Snohomish River and the Puget Sound beyond.
“That neighborhood doesn’t feel the problems,” Blankenbeckler said. “It’s the downstream areas that would feel that.”
The situation is hardly unique to Silver Firs or to Snohomish County.
“All communities in all areas in Western Washington are going through this,” said Curt Hart, a state Department of Ecology spokesman.
“Maybe it doesn’t seem like this one small project would make a difference, but if you add them up, it really does,” he said.
Part of the appeal for the county is that the area already has a drainage easement. A 1984 plat map of Silver Firs Division 2 designates the undeveloped tract “for stormwater conveyance and detention.”
Look farther back in the record, though, and it’s clear that the area was intended to serve as open space as well, said Tim Steen, Jenny Steen’s husband and a real estate attorney.
“This is a crucial bit of information that has been forgotten over time,” he said. “The stormwater group has lost sight of this.”
Without the open area, he didn’t think the original development would have been approved. He’s also concerned that the county wants to change how the land is used so it permanently stores water rather than serving only as an emergency overflow area.
Many of the neighbors appreciate the sense of community that’s evolved because of the drainage conflict.
At least one resident said the fight for the playfield is moving her to run for the homeowners association board this fall.
“I’ve really been inspired by the way the community has come together,” said Lisa Syravong, who was strolling through the park with her 4-year-old daughter and 9-month-old son last week. “It inspired me to run for the board.”
The county has offered to build a chain-link fence to try to keep children out, Blankenbeckler said. The county also has said it would spruce up the remaining chunk of the playfield with amenities such as picnic benches. Much of the community still isn’t big on the idea.
Many neighbors admit the playfield has grown untended, but say the shagginess is part of the charm. In the past months, volunteers have cleared swathes of blackberries and Scotch broom.
“That’s what open space is, in my mind; they’re not organized, manicured fields,” said Stefanie Maxwell, who has lived nearby for about 10 years.
For her, a detention pond is “not a risk I’d be willing to take.”
In addition to the loss of open space, the mother of two worries about children scaling the fence and falling into the pond. Several neighbors also are concerned about standing water attracting mosquitoes.
“Sometimes you need an issue to make everybody pitch in,” Jenny Steen said. “People are more invested in the community now, so we feel oddly grateful about the conflict, and of course still hoping that it resolves in our favor.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org.