WOODWAY — Opponents of a nearly decade-old plan to build a high-rise condo community on Puget Sound urged Snohomish County officials this week to hold the proposal to more stringent standards for construction near landslide hazard zones.
Residents near the Point Wells development site, situated between the water and a steep hillside near Woodway, on Tuesday called on the county hearing examiner to require that the developer abide existing regulations for geologically hazardous areas.
Those rules were revised five years ago, after the 2014 Oso mudslide killed 43 people and destroyed dozens of homes. But because the developer initially sought permits to build the community in 2011, county planners have been considering the details of the most recent version of the plan under the old rules that were in effect when the first iteration was submitted.
“Safety takes priority over vesting,” Shoreline resident Betty Ngan said during a hearing on the proposal, held via Zoom. “No developer has a vested right to endanger the public’s health and safety.”
The plea from opponents is the latest wrinkle in developer BSRE Point Wells’ longstanding push to get the county’s approval for the controversial project, which has for years raised concerns about traffic, landslide risks and other issues. The proposal includes buildings that would reach heights of 180 feet, or about 17 stories.
Representatives of BSRE, an acronym for Blue Square Real Estate, contend that the project would drive economic development, provide public beach access and repurpose what is now an industrial site.
“I think in concept (and) the goals of the project are sound, and they benefit the community,” Dan Seng, the project’s lead architect, testified recently before county Hearing Examiner Peter Camp.
Camp, who denied an earlier version of the project in 2018, is again set to decide whether it can advance. The county Planning and Development Services department has maintained the project still isn’t up to code, though. The department and BSRE must submit written final arguments to Camp by Dec. 11, marking the end the days-long hearing that began Nov. 4.
The hearing examiner typically has 15 days to issue a decision after a hearing ends but may extend that deadline if a proposal is especially complex.
“It’s more important to get it right than to be on time,” Camp said at the Tuesday meeting.
His final decision on the 2018 version of the project came more than two months after the close of the hearing that year.
If Camp denies the Point Wells proposal this time, the developer could appeal his decision to the Snohomish County Council, as it did in 2018. If the council sides with the hearing examiner, the developer’s next appeal option would be to ask King County Superior Court to review the denial.
BSRE took that route after the county council upheld Camp’s 2018 decision. Last summer, King County Superior Court Judge John McHale provided the developer additional time to seek approval for the project.
McHale ruled that BSRE still must address the issues that the county hearing examiner identified in 2018. BSRE has appealed that ruling to a higher court, however, seeking clarification on two key county code requirements related to building height.
One of those code provisions requires setbacks from tall buildings to lower-density residential development. Another bars buildings higher than 90 feet unless there’s a “high capacity transit route or station” nearby.
When BSRE submitted its latest plans to the county last December, the developer asked for special permission to disregard those two code provisions.
If Camp issues a decision in the developer’s favor, BSRE must still address a litany of issues before construction crews could break ground on the homes.
A recent lawsuit raises questions about who will decontaminate the site, which is now a petroleum storage facility and asphalt production plant. When BSRE purchased the land from Paramount of Washington for nearly $20 million in 2010, the former landowner pledged to clean up the land by June 1, 2020.
But Paramount hasn’t made any progress on the cleanup, BSRE argued in a lawsuit it filed against the company in Snohomish County Superior Court in February. In another court filing, Paramount alleged that BSRE hasn’t upheld its end of the deal because it hasn’t gotten approval to build the development.
Paramount Environmental Manager Mark Wells said commercial operations at the plant have been suspended since early June.
“As of right now, we don’t know what the future holds,” Wells told The Daily Herald.
County planning supervisor Ryan Countryman testified earlier this month that the developer’s application is still riddled with inconsistencies, despite the planning department’s many warnings to the developer that the plan will only get approved if those issues are resolved.
Seng, the project’s lead architect, told the hearing examiner that county planning staff have offered little help to the project’s backers navigating the complex permitting process.
The developer also does not have approval from the county’s chief engineering officer, Randy Sleight, to build in a geologically hazardous area.
Even under the older development rules that the project is considered vested in, BSRE’s plans don’t make room for the required setbacks between proposed construction and landslide zones, county planning staff have concluded.
On the steep terrain north of the development site, curved tree trunks and cracks in a roadway show evidence of instability, Sleight testified before the hearing examiner this month.
Under the county’s newer code provisions for geologically hazardous areas, the landslide hazard zones near the development would be considered larger, and more engineering work would be required to prove the plan is safe, according to Countryman.
The 2015 code revision altered the formula for calculating a landslide hazard area based on the height of a slope. In effect, the new rules quadrupled the size of those hazard zones, as measured from the bottom of a steep slope.
An attorney representing BSRE did not respond to a Wednesday email requesting comment.