By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
BELLINGHAM — Motocross racers buzzed around Hannegan Speedway on a recent Thursday like a swarm of giant hornets.
Riders in full-face helmets and brightly colored jerseys flew over jumps and zagged through sharp corners as spectators looked on, some close enough to get sprinkled with dirt from the passing bikes. At a safer remove, onlookers in wooden grandstands watched packs of motorcyclists whiz past the finish line.
That afternoon, 350 people paid to enter races on the track run by the Mount Baker Motorcycle Club. As with any week, many of them were from Snohomish County and had made a round trip of 100 miles or more for a simple reason: It’s the closest place for motocross.
They want to have this sort of outlet closer to home.
“We’ve had to travel for many years,” said Jason Sherman, 35, of Snohomish, who rode in two races that evening. “I’ve been out of it for so long because there’s no place to ride.”
That could change if Snohomish County gives the go-ahead to build a motocross track on 437 acres of timberland outside Granite Falls. An application from MXGP of Kirkland has been working its way through the county’s land-use process for three years now.
The proposed site along the Mountain Loop Highway has drawn fierce opposition from neighbors and conservationists. They contend the project would create aggravating and environmentally harmful amounts of noise. The motorcycles, they worry, also would create problems with dust and fuel spills. Other concerns are fire protection and habitat destruction, including that of the marbled murrelet, a threatened bird species.
Three days of hearings have been scheduled this summer so a county hearing examiner can reach a decision. The current hearing dates are July 7, 8 and 9.
There’s a lot of ground to cover. At the record room for the county’s Planning and Development Services, seven accordion files brim with site maps and descriptive plans about the track. There are scores of letters, pro and con.
Gary Strode, the co-owner of MXGP, has been trying to build a motocross facility since 2005, when Snohomish County forced him to close his previous track in Monroe. An attempt at starting a new one in Maltby failed because of neighborhood opposition and zoning restrictions.
In 2006, the County Council agreed to open up some commercial forestland for motocross tracks. To actually build them, organizers would have to obtain permits, provide buffers and meet noise standards. A year later, Strode applied to build the track on such land outside Granite Falls.
“It’s taken about four and a half years to get this far,” said Strode, 41. “Hopefully, we’re getting toward the end of it.”
Plans call for clearing 75 acres. The actual track would be about 50 acres, similar in size to Hannegan, Strode said. There would be at least 500 feet of treed buffer on all sides.
After five building phases, the facility would have two main tracks, as well as a beginner track, a children’s track, a freestyle area and spectator areas. Strode scaled back his original plan by eliminating an indoor riding area, concession stand and permanent restrooms.
Opponents say noise from the bikes would discourage people from coming to the area for hiking and other more tranquil forms of recreation. Members of the Mountain Loop Conservancy, a local group fighting the track, have gathered 800 signatures in opposition, said Jeff Van Datta, a neighbor of the proposed MXGP site who serves as the conservancy’s president.
“We’re convinced that it’s just going to be loud and there’s no way around it,” Van Datta said.
The biggest issue, Strode and Van Datta agree, is noise.
Van Datta, who is in his 50s and moved to the area in 1998, cites MXGP’s own noise study to argue that the track would double to quadruple noise levels at his home, which is about 3,000 feet from the edge of the proposed track. Plus, the sounds would be mechanical instead of natural.
“When you move out there, to an area like that, you expect to have to deal with a long commute and other inconveniences, but in exchange, you hope to get peace and quiet and to have a better experience with nature,” he said.
The site sits between two active quarries, Green Mountain Mine and Snohomish County’s Sand Hill gravel pit, but those don’t cause much disruption to neighbors, Van Datta said.
To dampen sound, Strode’s plans call for a 25-foot-high-by-70-foot-wide earthen berm around the track. An attorney working for the conservancy has argued the berm would be among the largest — if not the largest — construction projects in Snohomish County.
The mere act of building the berm raises questions about increased truck traffic, drainage problems and contaminants in the fill, among others, Seattle attorney David Bricklin argues in an appeal of the county’s decision to grant the proposal a mitigated determination of nonsignificance.
The berm would be built over 15 years. Strode said he hopes it would be finished sooner, while Van Datta questions whether it would materialize at all.
The Pilchuck Audubon Society has asked the county to ask for more environmental study, saying it’s necessary to take a closer look at whether the track would damage aquifers or increase landslide risk. They also want to know more about what it would do to Canyon Creek, which flows across part of the property. The group advocates looking further into effects on animals, birds and fish known to live in the area.
The Greater Granite Falls Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, sees the track as a potential boon for the city’s gas stations, restaurants, motorcycle shops and other businesses. Chamber president Debbie Taylor said they take neighbors’ concerns seriously, but think the proposal does a good job lessening negative impacts.
“Most of the businesses are very excited about bringing something like this to our area,” Taylor said. “The other thing we as a chamber would like to stress is that this would really give a good, fun family facility that we currently don’t have.”
Motocross riders have said a new local track is long overdue, since the closure of Strode’s Monroe track five years ago. They also lost access to trails in the Reiter Foothills near Gold Bar when the state Department of Natural Resources temporarily closed them in November. Pacific Raceways in Kent also shut down its motocross track as part of a multimillion-dollar redevelopment project, but plans to reopen it eventually, said Tracie Brandenburg, director of marketing and events.
For motocross enthusiasts in Snohomish County, that means driving to Bellingham or past Olympia. Snohomish County locals at Hannegan emphasized that for them, motocross is a family activity. That includes Sherman, the rider from Snohomish.
“Having to drive 10 miles as opposed to 50 to 60 miles, it makes it to where my family can come on Thursday nights,” said Sherman, who also works at Lynnwood Cycle Barn.
That’s important to him because motocross has been a family tradition. His dad passed it down to him, and he’s trying to pass it down to his daughters, ages 12 and 2 1/2, he said.
Rita Boswell of Stanwood doesn’t ride, but her 13-year-old grandson, Will, does. Boswell said she wasn’t sure what they were getting into when Will started riding about five years ago. Now, she’s convinced it’s the best thing that ever happened to him.
“It has done nothing but boost his morale,” she said. “I put every dime I’ve got into this because it’s a positive, positive thing.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.