Allen and Bundie Olsen walk near a broken patch of chip seal on Tuesday close to their home in the Wildflower neighborhood of Mill Creek. The rough surface was layed in July and August of 2016 and has since caused problems for residents like the Olsens whose yard and driveway are constantly filled with rocks from the street. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Dispute over road repairs raises questions in Mill Creek

MILL CREEK — Allen and Bundie Olsen are still vacuuming up gravel tracked into their garage from their quiet road.

“The gravel just doesn’t stop coming loose,” said Bundie Olsen with lingering exasperation.

Road crews chip-sealed their Wildflower neighborhood last summer. Chip seal is a rough, but relatively cheap, way to extend the life of an aging roadway. Roads in the nearby Mill Park Village neighborhood also were chip-sealed.

It marked the first time the city applied chip seal to streets within the large Mill Creek Community Association development.

Olsen and other residents complained. The homeowners association took up the cause. Hundreds of residents signed petitions, and it was standing-room only at a contentious City Council meeting last fall.

Eight months after the chip seal was laid down, the city on March 14 committed to repaving the roads, possibly as early as late summer. There are promises to repave other chip-sealed roads, too. Meanwhile, use of the treatment is on hold while leaders hash out long-term plans for all 106 lane miles of city roads.

“For us, the lesson learned is this is not a great neighborhood application,” said Joni Kirk, a city spokeswoman.

Two Mill Creeks?

This isn’t the first time chip seal has provoked complaints from Mill Creek residents — but it is the first time the complaints have come from the older, established part of the city.

Mill Creek started experimenting with chip seals on non-arterial neighborhood streets a few years ago. Streets in Heatherwood West, in an annexed area of the city’s north end near Jackson High School, were chip-sealed in 2013 and 2014. Rain interrupted work on one of the streets, which caused unevenness. Residents also report the same kinds of problems as the Olsens have.

“To this day we’re still tracking pebbles into our house,” Paul Heise said. “In summer it’s even worse because it gets hot and the stuff gets soft and gummy. … You hear the pebbles on your tires.”

Even if the rocks stayed put, residents find the rough-and-tumble improvement to be no improvement.

“For people who ride bikes or walk or walk dogs, or kids who step out to play ball, it’s a hazard. Even to tires, it causes wear that a smoother surface would not,” said Susan Paschke, who lives in another part of Heatherwood West.

Complaints were filed both years of the Heatherwood West jobs. City staff came out and took a look. It appeared something would happen. But political upheaval soon ensued. The city manager was out. Others followed.

“Then, like anything, priorities changed and it got lost — until now,” Paschke said.

That leaves some folks a bit uneasy.

“They’re trying to say there’s not two Mill Creeks,” Heise said. “They say that, but at the same time we’re not treated the same. This is an example. … I feel their pain. But we’ve been dealing with it since 2013, and we’re still dealing with it. In my opinion … we should be the first one to be fixed.”

“Power in numbers”

Help from the homeowners association certainly added volume to the latest complaints.

Before there was the city of Mill Creek there was the development of Mill Creek.

The nonprofit Mill Creek Community Association, formed by its developer in 1974, now encompasses 3,400 housing units across several neighborhoods, all clustered around a golf course, country club and private nature preserve.

Residents of the association made up two-thirds of Mill Creek’s population in 2010, Executive Administrator Mary Ann Heine said. She estimates association members make up roughly half the city’s population these days.

The idea of their own streets being chip-sealed caused many association homeowners beyond Wildflower and Mill Park Village to sign a petition last fall against the work.

During the debate, Heine recalls charges of “being elitist.”

“That’s not what anyone here wants. But there is power in numbers,” Heine said.

To boil the road debate down to miffed golfers also misses the nuances of an increasingly diverse community that reflects the surrounding area’s growing pains.

The Olsens describe Wildflower as a regular neighborhood, ethnically diverse and quiet.

“We don’t have any million-dollar homes here,” Bundie Olsen said.

What homeowners on both ends of the city now share besides their roads is a cautious optimism that those roads will be fixed.

“How we got here wasn’t so pleasant, but that doesn’t matter if the result is good,” Paschke said. “I don’t want other people to go through problems.”

Going forward, city leaders say, will take a holistic approach as they craft long-term plans for roads.

“Our policy is to treat all the neighborhoods the same,” Mayor Pro Tem Brian Holtzclaw said.

Chip seal’s mixed reviews

Snohomish County has used chip-seal methods on the unincorporated roads it manages since 1989. In many parts of the county, a chip-sealed road is a normal road.

But not everywhere. And Mill Creek is not alone in the chip-seal debate.

Mukilteo went through similar angst three years ago. The city started using chip seal in 2007, then stopped in 2014 following complaints similar to those heard in Mill Creek. The city has since studied various alternatives.

“One of the results was a consideration that we could use chip seal in the future, if it was the right technique for the right road — one with higher volume traffic, not just a residential neighborhood,” Mayor Jennifer Gregerson said.

Gold Bar also tried chip seal.

“It did not work out. We do not have enough traffic to compact the materials before they separate,” Public Works Director John Light said.

Everett also spurns chip seal.

“Asphalt overlay provides a smoother, quieter and longer lasting solution that meets the needs of the community we serve,” spokeswoman Kathleen Baxter said.

Several other cities still use chip seal as budgets allow, however. And others are actively exploring the option.

There are many uses and applications of chip seal. The typical process involves putting down a layer of asphalt oil, immediately followed by a layer of crushed rock. The “chips” are then pressed into place by a roller. A top coat, or “fog seal,” can be added to further hold the material in place.

The goal is to preserve the structural integrity of the roadway, which chip seal accomplishes by providing a barrier to moisture. That can extend the life of a road by another seven to nine years. It works best when applied before a road shows significant signs of wear and tear.

It’s not unusual for a treated road to ride rough for a while.

“Chip seals do eventually level out to resemble a more traditional asphalt overlay look. This takes place over time as the aggregate chips within the seal work their way into the underlying asphalt through weather and traffic,” said Joyce Barnes, the pavement management program manager for Snohomish County.

What’s next

It will cost an estimated $250,000 to repave the Wildflower and Mill Park Village neighborhoods — seven times the cost of the chip-seal jobs. The city also has promised to repave three Heatherwood West streets (27th Drive SE, 28th Avenue SE and 26th Avenue SE), bringing the total to at least $1.5 million.

There are no firm dates for the work.

Stormwater pipes need repairs in the Heatherwood West area, and repaving will be tied to that work, which has yet to be set. City crews will examine Wildflower’s and Mill Park Village’s pipes in June to see if they need repairs too. If not, repaving could come in late summer.

Not every chip-sealed road is getting repaved. That includes arterials, such as Dumas Street, as well as several side streets off 23rd Avenue SE and in the Wexford Court neighborhood that were chip-sealed in 2015, without complaint.

Bundie Olsen has attended many City Council meetings since that first one in October. She’s learned a lot, she said, and not just about terms like “alligator cracking” and “bituminous surface treatment.”

“It showed me the importance of paying attention, and showing up,” she said.

Melissa Slager: streetsmarts@heraldnet.com, 425-339-3432.

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