Motocross track near Granite Falls wins approval

GRANITE FALLS — Dirt-bike riders gunned their engines in excitement this week over the prospect of a new off-road motorcycle track near the Mountain Loop Highway.

They were reacting to a Snohomish County hearing examiner’s ruling that construction of a motocross complex can go forward, subject to a long list of conditions. The examiner imposed new measures to lessen the effects of noise, water runoff and erosion.

The decision elated Gary Strode, one of the business partners who’s been trying for nearly a decade to build a motocross track in the county.

“I hope to have the first main track built by the spring of next year and be riding motorcycles there next year,” Strode said.

The proposal calls for building the tracks in the middle of forested property of more than 400 acres. About 80 percent of the land would remain wooded.

Construction would take place in five phases, including an earthen sound berm that could take up to 15 years to complete. When finished, plans envision four tracks that could host up to 800 riders and spectators at a time.

Before Strode can break ground, he needs to obtain a grading permit from the county. That’s likely a months-long process.

Neighbors and environmentalists fighting the project are mulling their next steps. They’re skeptical that Strode’s plans will materialize as fast as he’d like.

“We’re disappointed in the decision and we’re looking at it in detail and deciding what kind of action we’re going to take in the future,” said Paul Sheppard, president of the nonprofit Mountain Loop Conservancy, which is focused on opposing the track.

Their options include asking the examiner to reconsider his ruling or appealing to the Snohomish County Council.

Examiner pro tem Phil Olbrechts issued a 116-page decision Tuesday. The examiner relied on information from a public hearing in February that stretched over five and a half days of testimony. The examiner also received 385 comment letters and a petition from opponents with 899 signatures.

The examiner’s decision covers three areas.

It grants a request to rezone the property to forestry and recreation from just forestry. It also issues a conditional use permit. Finally, it denies an appeal from the Mountain Loop Conservancy and two other groups that oppose the track: the Pilchuck Audubon Society and the North Cascades Conservation Council.

Strode co-owns MXGP of Kirkland, which has been trying to build a motocross facility since 2005. That’s when county officials forced him to close down a track that was operating outside Monroe without proper permits. An attempt to build a motocross park in Maltby failed because of zoning and neighborhood opposition.

In 2006, the County Council agreed to open up some commercial forest for motocross tracks. A year later, Strode applied to build on the land near Granite Falls.

The county has one motocross track that’s open to the public: Evergreen Motocross Park at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe.

Last year, county planners issued an environmental study about the proposed track that was three years in the making.

The planning study, called a mitigated determination of nonsignificance, said the track could be built if it complied with standards for professional noise testing, hours of operation and dust control.

Earlier features, including an indoor track and permanent concession stands, are no longer planned.

“For the rider, it’s going to be fantastic,” Strode said. “As a business model, it won’t be what we wanted, for sure.”

Soon after county planners released their study, the conservancy and the two other groups filed an appeal, asking the hearing examiner to consider 18 issues.

In his recent decision, the examiner gave the opponents some of what they wanted. He stopped short of ordering the analysis or safeguards they wanted.

The examiner underscored a requirement that noise from the track never exceed 49 decibels at the property line — that’s quieter than normal conversation levels of about 60 decibels. Noise standards also would apply to construction work.

Sheppard said he’s glad the examiner recognized the noise concerns but said the rules give Strode and county planners too much control over when to monitor noise.

“That’s like asking the fox to guard the henhouse,” he said.

The examiner also required stricter requirements than county planners for water runoff and use of clean dirt in the berm.

“At the very least, Mr. Strode is going to have to redesign his project,” said Bill Lider, a civil engineer and environmental activist who did consulting work for the conservancy. “The conditions that the hearing examiner imposed are strong and they’re not cheap.”

Lider said what remains to be seen is how those conditions are adhered to by Strode’s company and enforced by the county.

“I’m sure the Mountain Loop Conservancy will keep a close eye on the project to make sure those conditions are being met,” he said.

The examiner also said more analysis is needed of steep slopes along Canyon Creek, which are only about 200 feet away from the proposed race tracks. The issue came up long before the deadly Oso mudslide March 22 focused attention on landslide hazards.

“Steep slopes are located close enough to the project site to be of concern,” the examiner wrote.

Most political and business leaders in Granite Falls have supported the track for its potential economic benefit.

“I think it’ll help out the whole town, the whole area,” said Gary Carter, who runs a motorcycle rim-and-tire business outside of Granite Falls. “People (who use the track) need to buy food and gasoline and everything else.”

Strode said that when his motocross track gets built, most people who aren’t using it won’t even know it’s there.

“You’ll never hear it and you’ll never see it,” he said. “The traffic, you’ll never even notice it except for the bikes in the back of a pickup truck.”

Lider isn’t convinced. He believes the track will interrupt the experience for hikers who enjoy the wilderness at Mount Pilchuck and other nearby areas.

Their disagreement is bound to play out in the months and years ahead.

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

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