Hillside construction in Edmonds pits neighbors, and railroad against county and developer

PICNIC POINT — For some neighbors and the railroad, a new luxury home on the bluff poses a threat.

They worry that the home’s septic system on a steep slope could trigger a landslide, causing trees and dirt to take out nearby homes or passing trains.

The homebuilder insists that he’s done everything asked of him, and more. He casts the situation as a neighborhood dispute run amok.

If that’s the case, the disagreement has gone off the rails in a big way.

BNSF Railway and five neighboring homeowners sued earlier this year, blaming the builder, the home’s new owners and local government regulators for creating a hazard. They’re focused on the home’s drainfield, which is located on a steep bluff overlooking Puget Sound.

“We have major concerns about stability in this area and we feel that it compromises the safe movement of rail,” BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said.

An average of 43 trains pass through the area each day. There are daily Amtrak and Sounder runs, plus freight trains, some carrying tanks of volatile Bakken crude oil.

The railroad spends millions of dollars every year to shore up the bluffs between Everett and Seattle. It doesn’t help, Melonas said, when residential development undermines that work.

The situation north of Picnic Point may be a legal battle over one home, but it speaks to larger dilemmas at play as Snohomish County continues to grow. With most of the easily accessible urban home sites gobbled up long ago, builders have turned their sights to more challenging properties, including those with steep slopes.

The lawsuit

The lawsuit focuses on a house that Jake Begis built on Marine View Drive, south of Mukilteo’s Harbour Pointe neighborhood. Perched some 200 feet above the railroad tracks, the four-bedroom home sold to a San Francisco couple for nearly $1.4 million in September.

Building there required using two separate lots on the bluff for the septic system drainfield.

“I have tried my hardest to get everybody’s recommendations at the county, to go above and beyond everything they’ve asked for,” Begis said.

Begis and his land-development company are named as defendants in the suit. So are Snohomish County, which approved the building permits for the unincorporated property; the Snohomish Health District, which is responsible for approving septic systems; and the couple who bought the house.

The house is one of 14 that Begis has built in the area over the past decade. The others are downslope along a private road called Possession Lane.

That’s where the neighborhood dispute comes in.

Begis recounts an ongoing struggle with county code enforcement officers, responding to complaints. He said the Main family, who live downslope on the beach at the end of Possession Lane, are the chief instigators. That’s a contention they don’t dispute.

“They call the county all the time and make complaint after complaint after complaint,” Begis said. “And any time they make a complaint, the county has to investigate. It’s hard to do business with that kind of scrutiny on you all of the time.”

Begis’ projects have been the focus of code violation notices concerning septic systems, grading activity and other issues. The Marine View Drive project was placed under a stop-work order in March after a tree fell on a yard next door during grading activity. The neighbors, who also are co-plaintiffs in the railroad suit, also have a pending suit over the toppled tree.

No code complaints remain open — that means the developer has addressed the complaints to the county’s satisfaction.

Begis estimated he spent $100,000 to build the Marine View Drive home’s foundation. He said he’s had to submit more studies and redo plans, even after the county granted permits.

“I didn’t make any money on this project,” he said. “I was projected to make money. I started it, then the circus came to town.”

There’s no love lost between the Mains, whose ties on Possession Lane go back to 1930, and Begis, who also grew up in the area, in the 1970s and 1980s. The Mains’ house was on his Herald paper route as a youngster.

There’s been plenty of conflict, both sides agree.

Roy Main, 77, has lived on the beach property for more than 20 years. He’s one of the plaintiffs along with the railroad, but said others invited him to join the suit.

“I don’t care about Jake,” he said. “I just want everything to be done correctly.”

Roy Main and other family members aren’t satisfied with the county’s response to their concerns about Begis’ home-building projects.

“Every time we complain to the county, it was a health district problem,” Main said. “We’d go to the health district and it was a (county) planning department problem. This has been going back and forth for eight years.”

Begis said he’s made entreaties to the Mains to make up for the construction-related disruptions. Some have been accepted, others denied.

He offered at one point to buy their property. They say they won’t sell to him at any price.

Long history

The Mains own the beach west of the railroad tracks. For decades, they’ve chased off beach walkers and partying teens who were unaware that they were trespassing on private property.

The spot has been known as Franzen Beach and Shipwreck Point. The Franzen family’s maritime salvage business operated there until the early 1960s.

Roy Main married into the Franzen family. He and others say that multiple generations of experience have taught them to respect the sliding slopes above. They keep a scrapbook of full of slide photos and newspaper clippings dating back to the 1950s.

A slide to the south shut down Possession Lane for the first half of 1997, Main said. Photos from 2006 show a slide in the vicinity of the drainfield.

The railroad, too, has lengthy experience with slides. BNSF and its predecessors have been coping with erosion along Puget Sound bluffs since tracks were laid in 1893. The corridor between Everett and Seattle sees more slides than any other in the state, said Melonas, the BNSF spokesman.

To improve the situation, the federal government provided $16.1 million to pay to shore up six of the most slide-prone spots near Everett and Mukilteo. Crews finished the final projects after Thanksgiving, following three years of work.

“They’re paying huge dividends,” Melonas said. “They’re holding the debris up.”

The state Department of Transportation and other partners helped to oversee the work. Improvements included walls to hold back debris, fences with landslide-detection sensors and better drainage. In spots, concrete pads measuring 10 feet high and 1,000 feet long are held up by steel beams drilled 30 feet into the ground.

Sound Transit reported one extended blockage on the corridor since October. It hit on Dec. 7, and led to Sounder train cancellations over the following three days, said Kimberly Reason, an agency spokeswoman.

Landslide worries

Landslides are the overriding preoccupation in the lawsuit focusing on the Marine View Drive house. The suit asks the court to reverse permit approvals issued for the home and its septic system. It asks that the county and the health district perform a study under the state Environmental Policy Act and to take a detailed look at other impacts. It requests attorney fees and any further relief the court deems appropriate.

Jim Chumbley, one of the plaintiffs, said he felt compelled to sue after reading a geotechnical report about the drainfield. BNSF commissioned the study, which was performed by Shannon &Wilson, a Seattle firm that does business throughout the United States.

“There have been some moderate slides directly below us,” said Chumbley, who lives on Marine View Drive above the drainfield. “There have been major slides all up and down the area here. Everybody knows the passenger trains get stopped every year because of slide activity.”

Peter Chopelas, the engineer who studied the site for Begis, disagreed with the Shannon &Wilson report.

“In this case, there’s nothing in the foreseeable future that is going to destabilize that slope — certainly nothing that we did,” Chopelas said.

He described the bluff in question as an ancient seabed, which was compressed over time by glaciers. It’s an example of a Whidbey formation, a common feature in the area.

“It is as dense and hard as concrete,” he said.

The engineer said Begis complied with more regulations than any other homebuilder he’s worked with on similar projects.

A Snohomish County judge earlier this month dismissed most of the lawsuit, including all claims against the county and the health district. Yet to be decided are complaints from the homeowners that the septic system has created a public nuisance.

Presiding Superior Court Judge Michael Downes found Begis’ right to build was vested under state law when the county approved his building permit on Feb. 25. The opponents had 21 days to appeal that decision but didn’t meet the deadline, he said.

Attorneys for the railroad and neighbors asked Downes to reconsider. They say there was nothing on file to show alleged flaws with the septic system design until county inspectors signed off on the home’s final inspection, on Sept. 22. Downes on Thursday ruled that his decision stands.

It’s hard to blame people for wanting to live in the area.

Marine View Drive gives spectacular views across Puget Sound toward the southern tip of Whidbey Island.

In this dispute, that’s perhaps the only point where everyone can agree.

“It is my opinion the most beautiful place in the world,” said Begis. “It would be nice if it were 80 degrees every day, but we live in Washington.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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