LAKE STEVENS — Members of the Lake Stevens City Council voted this week to rezone two city-owned properties formerly designated for a new City Hall and civic center, giving the green light to commercial development.
Some residents, including the city’s planning commission, say the public land should have stayed public.
The city purchased the 3-acre parcel at the corner of 99th Ave NE and Market Place on Chapel Hill in 2016 with the intention of building a new civic campus, complete with a new City Hall and a Sno-Isle Library branch. Russ Wright, the city’s community development director, said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting the plan had been abandoned because “it was just not feasible, monetarily.”
The city council voted to “surplus” the property at an Aug. 23 meeting, opening it up for sale to private entities. Marketing materials show the city is asking $3 million for the land, and was seeking letters of intent from potential developers until Oct. 6. Rezoning the parcel from public/semi-public use to commercial use was the last step needed to open the gates for development.
Wright told council members that city planners had identified the need to add more jobs within Lake Stevens, but found a lack of commercial space in the city. Wright said a 2021 third-party economic survey had found the Chapel Hill property could have “high productivity for commercial use,” making it a good choice for development.
Lake Stevens’ planning commission voted not to recommend the Chapel Hill rezoning at a meeting Nov. 2. In an interview Tuesday, Commissioner John Cronin said he’d gone into the meeting expecting to vote in favor of the property’s development.
“I’m a huge proponent of being creative and finding strategic ways to bring in new jobs,” Cronin said. “But it was the residents who came out to the meeting that convinced me to vote against it.”
Cronin estimated about 75% of public comments received by the planning commission were against commercial development. Instead, most residents wanted the city to retain ownership and turn the land into a park or other community space, Cronin said.
At the City Council meeting, planning manager David Levitan told the council that out of 49 comments received ahead of the council’s vote, 40 were opposed to the rezoning. Of those, the majority wanted a park instead, Levitan said.
City Parks Director Sarah Garceau told council members her department had found no need for a new public park in the neighborhood surrounding Chapel Hill, citing existing school playgrounds and private parks in housing complexes. Garceau estimated development of a new park on the property would cost about $2.5 million on top of funds already budgeted for 2023.
Nearly every speaker during the public comment portion of the meeting said they wanted a public park instead of commercial space. Jason Bishop said he lived near the proposed development in a neighborhood of 99 homes on 9 acres. Only one small private park exists in that neighborhood, Bishop said.
“That park doesn’t do justice for that many families living in such a tight space,” Bishop said. “God is not creating any more public land. I think the council should do right by us with what they have.”
Other commenters voiced safety concerns, saying neighborhood kids frequently play in the streets or are forced to walk along busy roads with no sidewalks to get to nearby parks.
Frank Monkman told the council that development could threaten an important salmon habitat, Stitch Creek, that passes through the property. Monkman said any development on the site would likely have to go through a lengthy process with the cooperation of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Tulalip Tribes to ensure the stream’s protection.
City Council members largely expressed desires to see more public parks in the future, but most said commercial development was the best choice under current circumstances.
Council member Mary Dickinson said she would rather see the property become a community space, citing the original civic campus plans that featured an interpretive nature trail and green space.
“I think there is enough interest here that we can make this a positive for all of us,” Dickinson said. “We just need to get out of this box we’re in and think big picture.”
Council member Shawn Frederick said park development would threaten the city’s ability to maintain its existing parks and roads, pointing to a 2023 city budget already working with a deficit of $2.8 million.
“The question here is a challenge of whether a good decision is a popular decision,” Frederick said.
The Council voted 4-2 to approve the Comprehensive Plan docket including the Chapel Hill rezone. Members Dickinson and Steve Ewing were the no votes, while member Gary Petershagen was absent.
Council members also approved the city’s final 2023 budget at Tuesday’s meeting. The largest chunk of city funds is earmarked for public works projects, including several large street improvement projects. The budget includes $400,000 for ramp upgrades in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.