Monday, May 9, 2016

Housing Development Threatens West Olympia's Green Cove Basin

Above: A preliminary plat application that proposes to subdivide 30 acres in West Olympia near Cooper Point Road and 20th Avenue into 65 to 75 single family lots is slowly inching closer to reality. The property is a spectacular, critical piece of the Green Cove Creek basin containing wetlands, wildlife, and steep, forested ravines. 

Crime Against Nature, Watershed Underway

By Janine Gates
A Little Hollywood Land Use Investigation

A preliminary plat application that proposes to subdivide 30 acres in West Olympia near Cooper Point Road and 20th Avenue into 65 to 75 single family lots is slowly inching closer to reality.

The property is on four tax parcels and owned by The Holt Group, Inc., of Vancouver, Washington.

The wooded property, a spectacular piece of land containing wetlands, wildlife, and natural artesian springs, is a critical piece of the Green Cove Creek Basin, considered by the City of Olympia and Thurston County to be critical aquatic habitat. The proposal includes removal of the trees, site grading and utility installations.

The Green Cove Creek Basin has its own comprehensive plan, adopted by Thurston County in 1998. A Green Cove Basin map produced by the Thurston County Storm and Surface Water Program in 1998 indicates that the area proposed to be developed contains aquifer sensitive areas labeled extreme, high, and moderate.

Some say the Green Cove area, which contains a mosaic of interrelated, delicate wetlands, is the most sensitive aquifer in all of Washington State.

Project History

Little Hollywood has tracked activity on this property since December 30, 2014, when the City of Olympia received a land use application from Will Gruner of The Holt Group for the project known as Parkside on Cooper Point, located at 2200 Cooper Point Rd NW. 

After review, the application was deemed complete in the eyes of the city and considered “vested” by the city on January 14, 2015.

According to city code, the land use “clock” stops and starts when the city requests information of the applicant and the applicant responds. The applicant has six months from the time the clock stops to respond to the city’s questions. When the applicant responds, the clock starts again.

The clock was stopped in April 2015, when the city requested information of the applicant in a 16 page letter. The clock started again when the applicant responded, but it is currently stopped again.

The applicant submitted a redesigned plat to the city on March 23 and the city is awaiting requested information regarding a wetland in the southeast corner of the property, and related engineering issues.

Currently, the applicant has until July 20 to respond to city comments.

Above: Yes, the street weeps. Natural artesian springs flow freely under 20th Avenue NW. Little Hollywood took pictures of the active springs bursting forth out of 20th Avenue on Sunday as well as on other dry days in years past. This road, from Cooper Point, leads to Thurgood Marshall Middle School and Julia Butler Hansen Elementary School, the Goldcrest and Cooper Crest neighborhoods, as well as the new Evergreen Pointe neighborhood near Kaiser Road.

City planner George Steirer was hired last year by the city to handle the application and give it special attention. He is a land use consultant with his own company, Plan To Permit, LLC. Before that, he was a planner with the City of Mercer Island.

His specialty is analyzing the feasibility and review of zoning and land use applications, including subdivisions, shoreline permits, site layouts, rezones, variances, critical area permits, zoning code changes, and comprehensive plan amendments.

When all city questions have been satisfied, the application will be submitted by the applicant at a regularly scheduled land use site review meeting.

Steirer anticipates that the applicant will respond to city concerns and may schedule a site review meeting in June or July.  The site review committee will make a recommendation, and then it will go to the hearing examiner.

It is at this point the public will have a chance to formally weigh in, although Steirer says the city welcomes public comment at all stages of the process. The city is not required to hold another neighborhood meeting about the application as it did in February 2015.

In a telephone interview with Little Hollywood on Friday, Steirer said this site presents special onsite challenges due to its size, the number of lots, and environmentally critical area.

Steirer was asked about discrepancies in the recently redesigned preliminary site plan submitted to the city on March 23, which details 65 single family homes in drawings, while the text indicates 72, and even 75 lots. Steirer agreed the numbers are inconsistent.

“We’ve called them out on that. They’ve updated the drawings but not the text. They know that,” said Steirer.

Steirer said that the applicant is required to do regrading of 20th Avenue and the city is concerned about the impact to the wetland in the southeast corner of the property.

“The city is telling the applicant, much to their chagrin, that the road needs to be widened on 20th to add sidewalks and regraded to meet public safety codes. It will take a significant amount of engineering and earth movement, adding a huge cost to the applicant,” said Steirer.

When asked about the springs weeping through the asphalt on 20th Avenue, Steirer did not seem to know about them.

“Water coming out of the asphalt?” asked Steirer.

Above: The proposed Parkside development is in the critical area of Green Cove Basin, which covers 2,626 acres or 4.1 square miles. The headwaters of Green Cove Creek are located just south of the property and drain all the way to Eld Inlet and Puget Sound.

Green Cove Basin – Death by a Thousand Subdivisions

The headwaters of nearly all the streams in Olympia are located in wetlands.

The 4.1 square-mile Green Cove basin is bounded roughly by Cooper Point Road on the east, Mud Bay Road on the south, Overhulse Road on the west, and Sunset Beach Drive on the north.

The basin, encompassing portions of Olympia’s west side and urbanized areas of Thurston County, was only 24 percent developed in 1999, according to a city report. The basin has approximately 299 acres of wetlands, or 11.8 percent of the total basin area.

Since the 1850s, approximately 250 acres, or 45 percent of historic wetlands have been lost, according to the same city report published in 1999.

The Green Cove Basin drains into the nearby 245 acre Grass Lake wetland refuge, home to chinook, coho, chum, steelhead, sea-run cutthroat trout, western brook lamprey and Olympic mudminnows.

Green Cove Creek runs about 3.6 miles, and originates at the outlet of Lake Louise and flows through extensive wetlands, where the channel sometimes disappears. 

After crossing under Evergreen Parkway, the creek enters a forested area. At about 1,200 feet south of 36th Avenue NW, the creek steepens and enters a steep, forested ravine which confines the creek until it reaches the mudflats and passes in a flat straight channel into Eld Inlet at Green Cove. An unnamed tributary joins the creek south of Evergreen Parkway.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) uses Green Cove Creek from the mouth to Evergreen Parkway as an index stream for chum salmon. Coho remain in the creek and seek out wetlands and slow-water areas to rear for up to one year before migrating to saltwater.

Coho have been observed at least as far upstream as the second culvert under Kaiser Road by the sewer lift station. The DFW releases coho fingerlings to the creek at the outlet to Lake Louise.

The area is home to Olympic mudminnows, which have been scientifically captured, photographed, and released on site by Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest, less than 500 feet from the proposed development. Olympic mudminnows are found in limited locales in western Washington and nowhere else in the world.

“Historically, Cooper Point sustained vast tracks (sic) of wetlands – prime mudminnow habitat. Grass Lake and Lake Louise are two remnant examples of what much of the Point looked like in recent history. The loss of…existing forest areas and associated functions…will alter the existing hydrology of the site and the adjacent hydrologically connected streams and wetland. The burden is on the applicant to demonstrate otherwise, and we feel this burden has not been met,” wrote Jamie Glasgow, director of science and research for Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest, to the City of Olympia in 2015.

Other entities such as the city parks department, the Olympia School District, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and individuals have weighed in on the project as it has progressed.

Timothy Byrne, who was then capital planning and construction supervisor for the school district, said Hansen Elementary School is currently over capacity and has no room for additional students.

“If the Parkside Plat project is approved, the Olympia School District will consider modifying its current service boundary area to ensure elementary students generated from this proposed development attend L.P. Brown Elementary School,” wrote Byrne in his February 2015 letter to the city.

Westside’s Watchful Neighbors 

Several neighbors in the area have been watching the situation closely, but no one knows the area better than Olympia’s westside land use watchdog, 88 year old Jim Elliott.

Elliott knows the area around Cooper Point Road and 20th Avenue intimately: his mother and father homesteaded the area in the early 1900s, and at one point, the family owned 40 acres from 20th Avenue to Division Street. His family’s log cabin home still stands near the corner of Cooper Point and 20th Avenue.

In an interview with Little Hollywood last year, Elliott said that on June 18, 2015, he witnessed a truck unloading a bulldozer near the southeast corner of the property, and wondered what was going on.

He contacted his friend and neighbor, Roger Robinson, who investigated, and discovered that an egregious crime against nature had just taken place: the bulldozer had been used to enter the property to bury a natural artesian spring containing a well that Elliott’s father and uncle had put in over 70 years ago.

The wetland was brutally filled in. It is a federal crime to bury a wetland.

Robinson contacted City of Olympia planner Catherine McCoy, who was then in charge of the project, and told her about the destruction.

Speaking with Little Hollywood at the time, McCoy said the owner had the required permits and was just doing work in preparation for information requested by the city and the state.  She confirmed that she had been out on the property just a week prior to the incident with Alex Callender, wetland specialist for the Washington State Department of Ecology for the purpose of surveying the property.

Habitat Preservation: An Olympia Community Priority

In April 2015, an online Elway Poll was conducted on behalf of the city Parks, Arts and Recreation Department as part of the department's effort to include citizen opinions and priorities in the planning for programs and facilities.

This report summarizes the results of a random sample survey of 759 Olympia citizens. Water quality, wildlife habitat, public access and scenic value were each rated by more than 90 percent as important reasons to preserve open space. 

Neighborhood parks were ranked as the "most needed" type of park in Olympia with large natural areas following close behind.

In a question regarding habitat preservation, the preservation of wetland habitat was ranked as the most important type of wildlife habitat to protect. Mature forest land, wildlife species and Budd Inlet shoreline were not far behind in the ranking.

Trails, natural open spaces and improved maintenance were ranked at the top priorities for the department as suggested by citizens at community forums.

The city’s Habitat and Stewardship Strategy identified the need for active stewardship across the entire Green Cove landscape to lessen the ongoing indirect effects of urbanization.

Thad Curtz, chair of the city’s Utility Advisory Committee, wrote a letter in February 2014 in support of the City of Olympia’s application for the National Estuary Program Watershed Protection and Restoration Grant. 

His letter specifically addresses the Green Cove Basin and the city’s Habitat and Stewardship Strategy, which uses a watershed-based framework to identify and prioritize the city’s habitat acquisition and restoration needs.

“The Strategy prioritizes the Green Cove basin in northwest Olympia. The basin is unique and has a history of natural resources study and protection work. It was the focus of extensive work in 1998-2001 to create one of the first comprehensive environmentally-based zoning districts in the Puget Sound region….”

Jim Elliott, who still lives near his family homestead, doesn’t need to be told by any city “strategy” what to protect or how to protect it.

“It’s a mess. The city speaks with a forked tongue,” he said on Friday.

For more information about the proposed Parkside development, contact George Steirer, City of Olympia planner, Community Planning & Development, 601 4th Avenue East, Olympia, WA 98507-1967 or He does not have a city phone number.

Above:  The Elliott family’s log cabin home still stands near the corner of Cooper Point and 20th Avenue, in view of a proposed new housing development.