By William Lider
Paul Allen has contributed millions of dollars to saving elephants, gorillas and fighting climate change. But when it comes to “our own backyard” those who work for Paul Allen are not making the environmental decisions necessary to protect our threatened species.
Allen holds himself out as an environmentalist, yet his design team has pulled out all the legal stops to avoid protecting salmon habitat in Big Gulch Creek simply to cut costs for the expansion of his Flying Heritage Collection at Paine Field, a privately-owned museum of vintage aircraft and weapons of warfare on land leased from Snohomish County.
When the Sno-King Watershed Counci learned of Allen’s hangar expansion project, and its failure to improve past harm to Big Gulch Creek, we filed an appeal in an attempt to have the project include necessary stormwater treatment. Even the City of Mukilteo submitted a letter to the County supporting the watershed council’s appeal to protect water quality, but the city’s letter fell on deaf ears.
Stormwater runoff from the museum site is delivered to Big Gulch Creek in Mukilteo by County storm drain pipes. Big Gulch Creek provides critical habitat for federally listed, threatened chinook salmon as well as spawning coho salmon. Big Gulch Creek provides a brackish water environment for juvenile salmon coming down the Snohomish River as they make the transition from freshwater to saltwater. Historically this habitat would have been provided by intertidal marshland, but most of that habitat has long since been filled. Continuing the damage to this last remaining critical habitat greatly reduces the juvenile salmon’s survival chances, pushing them toward extinction.
The decline in Puget Sound salmon from habitat degradation is undeniable. Chinook reared in Big Gulch Creek are an important prey species for orca whales, another threatened species. Without an adequate salmon supply, female orcas are unable to provide the milk to feed their calves, starving them to death. It has been recently reported that only 25 percent of orca pregnancies produce calves that survive. The future survival of these orca turns on projects like Allen’s museum expansion to provide stormwater improvements.
The proposed aircraft hangar addition will replace more than an acre of impervious surface. Normally, a project like this would be required to provide stormwater flow control (such as a detention pond) and stormwater quality treatment for its runoff to help mitigate for past projects in the drainage basin with no treatment. This treatment is necessary and required to help correct the damage to local streams and spawning salmon beds caused by high flows of polluted stormwater from sites like Paine Field.
Allen’s real estate firm Vulcan, with the assistance of Snohomish County Planning Department, has avoided making these necessary stormwater improvements to protect threatened species.
For redevelopment projects such as this, the county passed an ordinance requiring that the cost of the project must exceed 50 percent of the assessed value of improvements on the parcel. While reasonable for small parcels, The county’s planning department has now made an overly broad ruling that is now being interpreted to exempt large-scale airport projects from critical stormwater improvements.
The county now argues that unless a redevelopment project exceeds more than 50 percent of the value of all tenant improvements — which in this case is over $15 million dollars — for the entire multi-tenant 160-acre parcel, no new stormwater requirements will be required. By applying this logic, the airport has effectively made itself immune from the stormwater code over large sections of the airport, forever. This will continue the ongoing harm to Big Gulch Creek and the salmon habitat degradation.
Because Allen’s hangar is a mere $5 million, 1-acre project, it is now exempted from the county’s stormwater code.
The Sno-King Watershed Council appealed Allen’s project in May on that basis; but our appeal was dismissed on July 7, by the county hearing examiner after a full court press by Allen’s attorneys and the county’s prosecuting attorney. It was only after the watershed council appealed this project that the county “reinterpreted” its rule.
The watershed council does not oppose the hangar project; we simply seek reasonable stormwater controls applied per the county’s stormwater code. For Paul Allen, the additional cost to provide flow control would be less than $500,000 or less than 10 percent of the overall project cost, a small price to pay to protect threatened species in Puget Sound.
We call on Paul Allen to find out what is going on here and do the right thing. Help us protect our threatened species and the environment in our backyard and provide the state-of-art stormwater treatment to avoid further harm to these species.
We call on the Snohomish County Council to change its stormwater ordinance to close this loophole so large redevelopment projects will not be exempt from providing stormwater treatment.
We ask Snohomish County to and stand tall when it comes to protecting our salmon habitat.
Our killer whales and chinook salmon populations are in decline, headed for extinction. We ask that all involved work to strengthen our water quality protection for these critical species so that they are not lost to future generations.
William Lider is a board member of the Sno-King Watershed Council. He lives in Lynnwood.