Everett Marshland’s future a bit muddy

EVERETT — Low-lying farmland could be turned into hundreds of acres of restored wetland.

Or, in the opinion of one farmer, it could be a huge boondoggle.

The area is the Everett Marshland on the eastern edge of the Lowell neighborhood, on the west bank of the Snohomish River.

It’s 829 acres of mostly agricultural land, with small landholders, community gardens and larger farms. The city of Everett owns more than 300 acres of the area.

It’s also considered a prime candidate for restoring wildlife habitat for endangered salmon and other species.

Restoring the Everett Marshland is part of a region-wide initiative called the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project (PSNERP), which is composed of 11 projects around northern Puget Sound to restore tidal estuaries and lowlands.

The restoration project is a joint effort by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with a combined preliminary price tag of $1.1 billion. The Everett Marshland is one of the larger projects in acreage and has the highest estimated cost, $328 million.

Part of the reason for the cost is that much of the marshland, which is inside the Everett city limits, is privately owned. Another reason is that there is already a significant amount of infrastructure in the area, including the Marshland Flood Control District pumping station, a BNSF Railway line that bisects the land and the Puget Sound Energy transmission lines that feed Boeing plants.

One of the local landowners is Peter Landry, who owns a 6.5-acre hobby farm off S Second Avenue. He said the government is going about restoration the wrong way.

“The government goes and decides they’re going to spend a bunch of time and effort to look at an area, and they put a project out there that says, ‘We want to do this,’” Landry said. “Then say they can’t do it unless everyone agrees.”

That’s a reference to the fact the project would involve flooding the entire area — but the government can’t use eminent domain to take property, said Theresa Mitchell, the Fish and Wildlife project manager overseeing the state’s involvement.

The parties have “no intention of going forward with a plan if there are unwilling landowners,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell emphasized that the restoration project list is tentative and that engineering studies to determine the feasibility of each project would come later.

Landry sees the project as technically infeasible and thinks the costs are too high. But he is most upset with what he sees as a lack of outreach to property owners in the marshland area and to the public as a whole.

A 45-day comment period for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is under way, the last day of which is Nov. 24.

Landry said that the process is designed to avoid public comment until it is too late. The only reason he found out about it was because he was on an email list from a time when he worked on another restoration project, when he was the public works director for the city of Normandy Park.

“I haven’t heard ‘boo’ from them for two years, and then I get a nondescript email that says, ‘We have an EIS,’” he said.

There is a public open house scheduled for Wednesday in Burlington, covering all 11 of the restoration projects.

The Everett project’s documents online indicate that the state will adopt a final EIS under the State Environmental Policy Act, which would not require further public comment beyond what is under way.

“This is Secret Squirrel kind of crap that they’re trying to do so they don’t have any ugly public comment early on in the project,” he said. “It’s freaking un-American!”

Landry’s technical concerns are based on his knowledge of the Snohomish River valley, where he’s lived for nine years, and the preliminary plans issued to date, which show levees being removed, new ones constructed across the valley and the pumping station of the Marshland Flood Control District being moved from the river hundreds of yards to allow low-lying lands to become a flood district.

Landry said the loose, peaty soil in the valley won’t support new levees and that the Corps’ plan fails to take that into account. Moving the pumping station means the entire valley downstream of the new station will flood more frequently, regardless of whether he or any other landowner is participating in the project.

“Normally when you do a conceptual plan, the things that you’re proposing are possible,” he said.

Given the other problems, Landry thinks the $328 million price tag for the marshland project is too low an estimate, and he doubts that spending at least $500,000 per acre is worth it.

Lynn Wetzler, the project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, said that planning work to date, including the selection of the 11 projects out of an initial field of more than 500, has been done with the goal of deciding on the feasibility of the work.

After public comment, the Corps will do design and geotechnical work to produce a feasibility report, which would then have to be submitted to Congress for approval, and then appropriation.

The most optimistic scenario is that construction would start in 2018, but which project of the 11 goes first, and what that project ultimately looks like, will depend on how much money Congress approves.

In reality, a project as big as the marshland restoration might be decades away.

The city of Everett has had plans for the area going back 20 years, but after a plan to build a golf course and ball fields there was scuttled in 2004, the city put together a plan for the marshlands, involving local property owners, including Landry, environmental groups, Native American tribes and other local interests.

That plan, said city senior planner Mary Cunningham, identified many technical problems that would need to be addressed in the valley, including soil stability, the location of the pumping station and the other infrastructure.

A list of 14 technical studies indicates the amount of work that would need to be done to comply with the Subarea Plan.

“The other thing we found is we didn’t have the money to do the technical feasibility studies,” she said.

That’s where the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project entered the scene. The availability of federal money was an opportunity to achieve some of the goals at significantly lower cost to the city.

The city and Fish and Wildlife would split the local share of the project’s post-design costs, about 35 percent of the total. The value of the land would count toward the city and state’s share of the costs.

The city also has an interest in making sure that whatever happens, the outcome will conform to the city’s earlier plan for the area.

Landry said his goal is to get the Marshland project removed from the restoration project list.

He’s in favor of wetland restoration in general, Landry said, but the marshland plan makes no allowances for existing uses, and holdouts like him could derail the entire proposal by refusing to sell their land.

“I don’t know how you sell a project that says you’re going to have to move out in order to make it work,” Landry said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

Open house

The state Department of Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are holding an open house Wednesday on the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project. The meeting will be from 5 to 8 p.m. in the council chambers of Burlington City Hall, 833 S Spruce St., Burlington. The agenda includes information displays, a formal presentation and public comment.

The public comment period for the project runs through Nov. 24.

More information is online at pugetsoundnearshore.org.

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