The Farm could pose threat to native plants, wildlife in Penny Creek wetlands

Environmental expert accuses council of not taking ecological concerns seriously
By Dan Aznoff | May 02, 2019
Photo by: Dan Aznoff An old barn is the only structure on the 17-plus acres developers hope to replace with almost 400 apartment homes and 100,000 square feet of commercial space along 132nd St. SE. Environmentalists have raised concerns with the reduced size of the buffer to sensitive wetlands.

The proposed development known as The Farm has raised concerns among environmentalists, city staff and members of the City Council.

The 400 apartment homes and 100,000 square feet of commercial space that developers have planned on 17.34 acres of open space in the northeast corner of Mill Creek does not conform to the city’s intent when municipal codes were implemented to protect native plants and protect wildlife, according to Elizabeth Larsen, a senior planner who has reviewed development projects for local cities as well as for Snohomish County.

“They are not taking this threat seriously,” said Larsen. “The main issue is the mitigation of the site along the wetlands that runs adjacent to the tract.”

Larson said the Mill Creek Municipal Code (MCMC 18.06.830) that deals with critical areas requires a binding site plan for all developments greater than a specified size, which would be exceeded by The Farm. The municipal code adopted by the city in 2004 requires a 200-foot buffer from any sensitive wetland.

The Farm would have only a 5-foot buffer, according to Planning Manager Tom Rodgers. The tradeoff for the reduced buffer, said Rodgers, was made to benefit to the city far outweighs the encroachment on the wetlands. The reduced buffer was approved by the state Department of Ecology.

The developer, Vintage LP, first offered to provide management and restoration for the beaver population along Penny Creek. Rodgers said that offer was rejected because plans were already in place to raise 35th Avenue SE.

“The initial proposal from the developer did not match the threshold of the impact that the reduced buffer posed to the sensitive wetlands,” Rodgers said.

Before the city approved the site plan for The Farm, it required the developer to purchase the adjacent 58 acres that had previously been owned by Pacific Topsoil and provide improvements to the area so it could be turned into accessible parkland that would benefit the entire region.

Drawing a line

The council’s newest member, Stephanie Vignal, said she reached out to Larsen after learning that the buffers would be reduced, as well as the having the potential for stormwater runoff to reach the wetlands.

“True mitigation would mean the area would be untouched for 10 years, not five years of replacing plants and restoring shrubs,” said Vignal. “Somebody obviously thought the setbacks were important when they drafted the city code. I would prefer to see the buffers remain intact.

“The line has to be drawn somewhere. This time it is the buffer. Next time they may be coming for our trees.”

Vignal said she believes it is her responsibility as a member of the council to preserve the natural beauty of the community.

Councilmember John Steckler admitted he was surprised at the amount the buffer was reduced. He added that the native areas are a playground where residents can observe and learn about nature and native wildlife.

“I did not know what to expect at first. But I am very pleased at what I have learned,” he said. “The Farm, as I see it, will have a positive impact on the city and the ecology of the region.”

Steckler is a major supporter of the project.

“Having these pristine areas within our community are much better than the horrific concrete slabs I had envisioned when Walmart wanted to move in,” he said.

He added that the developers offer to maintain and replace native plants for five years is a desirable alternative to what has occurred at other sites, specifically Buffalo Park.

Mayor Pam Pruitt did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Larsen said The Farm itself is not her biggest concern. It is the precedent that it would set.

Code calls for a 200-foot buffer between any buildings and existing standing water. Vintage LP has offset the reduced buffer requirement with a donation of 58 acres of parkland with raised walkways over the wetlands.

“Other developers would be able to point to the reduced setbacks and want the same allowances,” she explained. “That could pose long-term impact to the community and the natural beauty of the region.”

Protected from harm

The geotechnical study prepared by Terra Associates did not site any potential threats to the ecology of the site. The Kirkland-based firm issued reports that assured the “native vegetation would be protected from harm,” as outlined in the municipal code.

The code, however, gives the city the ability to require the establishment of critical area tracts to assure developers take “an undivided interest” in the ownership of each building lot.

The property on west side of the building lot where The Farm would be located has been identified as a Category III wetland in the report submitted by Talasaea Consultants last December.

Category III wetlands are described as “wetlands with a moderate level of functions (plant and wildlife) up to 1 acre acre in size disturbed in some ways, and are often less diverse or more isolated from other natural resources in the landscape than Category II.”

The more sensitive Category II wetland tract directly adjacent to the proposed development is owned by Snohomish County and held as a wetland mitigation site.

Larsen explained that the non-native plants would take over the area in time by robbing the them of light and sources of nutrition.

A critical area tract, she explained, has restrictions placed on it to protect plants, fish and animal habitat. The proposed trails and "park" would not be consistent with these protections.

“Allowing people and dogs to have access to the proposed mitigation site would seriously impact the vegetation and wildlife on the site.”

The tract that is the most concern for environmentalists, according to the developer, totals 4.86 acres.

The environmental checklist submitted by the developer listed shrubs, grass, wet soil plants and four species of water plants that would be disturbed or removed by the construction.

It is one of those species of grass that has Larsen concerned. She said the reed canary grass that is a non-native species that could harm or overtake native growth.

The builder has offered to monitor and replace any plants that are harmed from the development for five years. All the trees currently on the site are expected to be removed during construction. The total amount of timber is not expected to exceed 5,000 board feet.

“The cleared areas could very well be overgrown with non-native vegetation in 10 years,” Larsen said. “That could have irreparable damage to the native plant life.”

The environmental checklist noted hawks, eagles and numerous songbirds rely on the wetlands, as well as deer, beaver, squirrel and an occasional elk. The list did not contain any endangered species.

Construction on the first phase of apartments at The Farm is scheduled to begin in May or June, if the developer receives the required approvals. The building portion of The Farm is projected to last until late 2021, based on revised plans submitted in January and March.

If completed according to the approved plan, The Farm will be a mixed-use development of 10 structures, including a five-story parking garage with 354 apartments, 26 live/work units and 100,000 square feet of commercial space with a medical facility in the East Gateway Urban Village with frontage on 132nd St SE (SR96).

The living units would be in four and five-story structures above the ground floor retail space.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.