Friday, June 19, 2015

County Commissioners to Hear Proposed Oak Tree Preserve Development Case

By Janine Unsoeld

The Thurston County Commissioners will discuss the merits of a citizen appeal of the proposed Oak Tree Preserve development at a hearing open to the public on Tuesday, June 23, 4:30 p.m., Building 1, Room 280, at the Thurston County Courthouse, 2000 Lakeridge Drive SW, Olympia. 

The Oak Tree Preserve plat appeal hearing follows the commissioner’s regularly scheduled commissioner’s meeting. Only those who are party to the case - the developer and those who appealed the hearing examiner’s approval of the project – may speak at the hearing.  Each party’s argument will be limited to 15 minutes.

Although the county is a party of record, it is unclear to Little Hollywood if the county is considered to be a party to the appeal. A joint motion issued by the county and the developer in early June seems to further blur the line between the county’s role and the developer’s goals and objectives.

A group of Thurston County citizens and the Black Hills Audubon Society are challenging Thurston County Hearing Examiner Sharon Rice’s approval in April of the proposed Oak Tree development in the City of Lacey’s urban growth area of Thurston County. The group says that the subdivision plan would destroy a vital wildlife habitat and is in violation of the county’s critical area ordinance.

The proposed development on Marvin Road is bordered by the Burlington Northern Railroad and the McAllister Park and Evergreen Estates subdivisions in unincorporated Lacey, and would subdivide 258.5 acres into 1,037 single family homes, said to be the largest in the county’s history. 

The development site is home to the largest remaining Oregon white oak habitat in Thurston County.  Oregon white oak is a state-protected priority habitat.  The proposed development would destroy almost half of the 79 acres of Oregon white oak woodlands on the site.

Thurston County Hearing Examiner Sharon Rice decided in favor of the preliminary plat and the Thurston County Resource Stewardship Department staff supports the hearing examiner's decision. The decision was appealed in May by citizens Bonnie and Bob Self, Donald and Liz Lyman, Lisa Carroll, Bill Koopman, Liz Kohlenberg and the Black Hills Audubon Society.

The appeal contends that the subdivision plan violates Thurston County’s critical areas ordinance and that it should be remanded to the hearing examiner. The group argues that the subdivision’s preliminary plat:

1)      Does not include the required study of wildlife that is associated with oak woodlands, even though the county ordinance says protection of wildlife is the most important function of the priority habitat.  The developer’s expert admitted in her testimony that a wildlife study was not done, and said: “It was my understanding that a wildlife study was not required at that time.”

2)      Misuses science to conclude that the habitat function of the woodlands will be the same after development as before – even when the development destroys almost half the woodlands, bisects what remains with a road, and surrounds it with a dense housing development. State law requires the use of best available science in development regulations – and this was not best available science.

Late Breaking News

The appellants, who include two former county planning commissioners and several retired scientists, have asked that the project be remanded back to the hearing examiner.

Today, the appellants filed a document in support of its earlier motion that asks the county commissioners to allow new evidence that the appellants discovered after the hearing examiner closed the record. That motion is being opposed by both the developer's attorney and the Thurston County Resource Stewardship Department’s counsel, Rick Peters.

In a June 3 response to the appeal, Peters claimed that Thurston County code does not allow the record to be supplemented, that the appellants do not have standing to challenge the hearing examiner's decision, and that part of the appeal should be denied and/or dismissed on procedural or substantive grounds.

“No argument provided by appellants should invalidate the findings and conclusions of the hearing examiner,” says the letter by Peters.

The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is not a party to the Lyman appeal, but in a June 2 letter to the commissioners, habitat biologist and environmental planner Theresa Nation said the department concurs with the appellant’s analysis of the errors in the evaluation of impacts to oak woodlands.

“We agree that the assessment of the impacts to oak woodlands was flawed and inconsistent with best available science. We agree that an accurate assessment of the impacts and adequate mitigation measures are necessary….” wrote Nation.

“….In support of Governor Inslee’s Results Washington initiative, WDFW tracks and reports the status of oak woodlands statewide. The Results Washington goal is to lose no more than 31 acres of oak woodlands annually throughout all of Puget Sound. This one proposal would cause losses well beyond the annual sound-wide goal,” wrote Nation. She went on to say that the appellants in this case have requested a reasonable solution to the serious issues brought forth in their case.

County-Developer File Joint Motion

A joint motion filed on June 8 by the county Resource Stewardship Department and the development applicant, Oak Tree Preserve, LLC, asks the commissioners to strike from the record the June 2 letter from Nation, which is posted on the county’s website. The motion says that the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife is not a party to the appeal, and should be considered as new evidence.

However, the county's appeal process, outlined in a notice dated May 20, specifically allows all parties of record, not just the parties to the appeal, to respond to the appeal by the deadline of June 3.

Theresa Nation, representing the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, is among those listed on the county's master list of parties of record.

The joint motion by the county and Oak Tree Preserve to strike WSDFW’s response to the appeal raises questions and it could be considered odd that the county and the developer would issue the joint motion.

Although the public cannot speak at Tuesday’s hearing, witnesses to the hearing can learn about the land-use case first-hand by observing the local process.

“The fate of these oak woodlands, the wildlife and the quality of life in Thurston County hangs in the balance,” said Liz Lyman in an interview today.

Full Disclosure: Janine Unsoeld is listed as a party of record for providing testimony at the March hearing on behalf of the board of the South Puget Environmental Education Clearinghouse (SPEECH). She nor SPEECH is a party to the appeal.

For more information about the proposed Oak Tree Preserve development, including pictures of the site, see several stories at Little Hollywood, and type key words into the search button.

For Thurston County’s information about the case, go to