Friday, September 20, 2013

Olympia’s Shoreline Master Plan and the Oyster House Restaurant: A Missed Opportunity for Budd Inlet Restoration?

Above: Rising like a Phoenix from the ashes, an Oyster House oyster creature, possibly named Oscar, appears to have been rescued during demolition of the restaurant on August 11. The downtown Olympia restaurant burned down July 19. No one was injured.
Olympia’s Shoreline Master Plan and the Oyster House Restaurant: A Missed Opportunity for Budd Inlet Restoration?

By Janine Unsoeld

After many years of work, the Olympia city council deemed its draft Shoreline Master Plan just about done earlier this week. After staff makes final changes and gets it back to council on October 1, the mind-numbing 100+ page document will be handed it off to the Washington State Department of Ecology for review.
The City of Olympia is updating its Shoreline Master Program (SMP), which is required by the Shoreline Master Act, and regulates the use and development of properties along certain shorelines. 

According to Keith Stahley, City of Olympia’s community, planning and development manager, it will initially take Ecology staff about three months to review the document to ensure it is complete according to a checklist provided by Ecology. After more public hearings and possible policy clarifications, Ecology could approve, suggest amendments, or deny the application. In any case, the city is expected to see the draft back in September of 2014.

Meanwhile, during SMP discussions, a tragic and unexpected disaster took place on Budd Inlet at the southernmost tip of Puget Sound: the Oyster House restaurant in downtown Olympia burned down in the wee hours of July 19.
The owners, Tom and Leticia Barrett, didn’t waste any time obtaining a city demolition permit on July 30, and the restaurant is in the process of demolition and reconstruction. Construction activity requiring the closure of the 4th Avenue sidewalk between Sylvester Street and Water Street is anticipated to be completed by the end of February 2014. Access to the boat ramp and boat dock will remain open.

In light of the Olympia city council’s update of its Shoreline Master Plan (SMP), there is additional scrutiny on this piece of property. To be clear, the Oyster House reconstruction is not affected by the pending adoption of the SMP and the current draft SMP would not impact the owner's ability to replace the structure.
While the Oyster House restaurant occupies a tiny parcel of land in the overall discussion of the health and restoration of Budd Inlet, it is a highly visible and strategically located example of past and current land use practices and the ongoing, frustrating efforts to protect, clean up and restore our little part of Budd Inlet.

Despite all the local and regional discussions, meetings, research and reports about the environmental impacts to Olympia’s downtown from climate change and sea-level rise, surface water runoff and stormwater pollutants loading South Puget Sound, and the need for better earthquake preparedness, it appears the rebuilding of the Oyster House, as a case example, could be a missed opportunity in shoreline restoration.
Project Update

“The owners are planning to replicate what the Oyster House looked like before it burned down,” says Ben Barnes, City of Olympia building inspector. “They’ll rebuild it back-to-back since the fire didn’t get to the back side. It’ll need a little structural upgrade, but that’s about it.”
Asked about the integrity of the building and the small concrete slabs stuck into the fill under the backside of the restaurant that can readily be seen at low tide, Barnes said, “Somebody at some point piled those up there, I don’t know who did that. It’s a lot sturdier now than before the (2001 Nisqually) earthquake. There’s a thick slab under the restaurant – it has a really good foundation under there.  There’s some exposed rebar that’s starting to rust, and will need to be cleaned up,” he said.
Above: The Oyster House on Budd Inlet has been demolished. A recent low tide exposes concrete slabs placed there to stabilize the northeast portion of the restaurant. Support beams along the underside of the now burnt down front part of the restaurant appear newer.
MC Squared, Inc. is doing the structural work and piling improvements, design, and seismic upgrades.

"The building burned down to the concrete slab that was in place since 1920. We’ll be putting up new wood frame walls, and just finished designing two trusses that are similar to, but not identical, to the ones that were there. It will all meet current code, and restored close to the architectural design from 20 years ago,” said Mike Szramek of MC Squared. Asked about the stabilization of property, Szramek said the northeast corner will be stabilized to hold up that corner of the building.

There is no official shoreline monitoring program at the city level, but city staff, including Todd Stamm, City of Olympia planning manager, is very familiar with the site.

"The moment this burned, we kicked around a few ideas and regulatory schemes. Under the shoreline code, it’s a fast path to build within the same envelope and restore what was there. If the owners start wanting change, there’s a slow shoreline regulatory, traditional permit process. Both paths were described to him. (Owner Tom Barrett) is in the restaurant business, not the development business,” said Stamm.

Asked what the city is concerned about, Stamm said, “We’re looking at the material underneath the building, and the rip rap there to prevent erosion. If he (the owner) wants a seawall, then it’s his choice to make improvements.”

A building permit to rebuild will go through the normal shoreline two-step process through the city and the Washington State Department of Ecology. As of this writing, plans have not been submitted.
Reached by telephone and asked about current demolition and rebuilding efforts, possible shoreline improvements, and confirming the rescue and identity of an unidentified oyster creature, Oyster House restaurant owners Tom and Leticia Barrett both chose not to comment for this story.
The Oyster House Restaurant

According to the Oyster House website, the restaurant is the oldest seafood restaurant in the State of Washington. It is the old original culling house of the original Olympia Oyster Company, which was formed prior to 1900. For many years, the Olympia Oysters were culled after being barged in the basin immediately to the north of this building. As far back as 1859, Olympia Oysters were sent to San Francisco where gourmets would pay $20.00 per plate for them.

The original owners started a small seafood bar in the southeast corner of the building where Olympia Oyster Cocktails were served to patrons. In 1948, the restaurant started to evolve into a large scale operation with two or three additions. The current owners, Tom and Leticia Barrett, have operated the business since 1995.

According to the city of Olympia website, the Oyster House is listed on inventory lists by the City of Olympia but is not listed on any local, state or national historic register. Originally built in 1923, it is divided into two parcels.

According to Thurston County records, the total market value in 2013 was $62,604 for the intertidal zone. The owner and taxpayer for this parcel is listed as Oyster House Inc. Only $848.03 is due in taxes in 2013 for this parcel. The county assessor’s database lists no land or building for this parcel.
The owner and taxpayer for the parcel containing the actual land and building is T&L Limited Liability Company. The total market value is listed at $1,438,900. Part of the .57 acre parcel is in a flood zone, and in the city’s Urban Waterfront zone. The land is valued at $887,100 and the buildings are valued at $551,800. It was taxed at $62,604 in 2013. The square feet of the building is 5,312 and the parking lot square feet is 6,750.

Olympia city manager Steve Hall confirmed that the tidelands to the east of the Oyster House restaurant do appear to belong to the Barrett’s and the city does not pay anything to use this intertidal zone area for public access. This is the portion of Percival Landing featuring a foot bridge connection along Budd Inlet, an area where The Sandman tugboat is usually seen.

Some shoreline restoration advocates have entertained the idea that the city consider a land swap with the Oyster House, swapping the Sylvester Street right of way west of the building for the piece of land that the Oyster House sits on. 
“Allowing the Oyster House to rebuild on that piece, leaving a very narrow strip that could allow some shore restoration, removal of all those pilings and giving the restaurant solid ground to build on is much less expensive to build and maintain,” suggests Rob Ahlschwede, a Thurston County resident who has been involved in the SMP deliberations for the last four years. 

“They would still be right on the water, have a place for outside dining again and the Inlet would be a little closer to healthy.  It would take some legal stuff to do the swap, but it's been done in other places around the country,” says Ahlschwede.
Hall confirmed that a land swap was a possibility.

“Shortly after the fire, city staff met with the Barrett’s about future plans, including perhaps moving the restaurant to the west. While very cordial, the Barrett’s indicated that the best way to ensure getting their employees back to work as soon as possible was to rebuild in place and not try to do a land swap. Their insurance would not cover the cost of the move and much of the building core was salvageable. Also, city staff confirmed that a land swap would open up new shoreline use permit and land use approval processes which could take up to two years or more to compete. By contrast, building in place is relatively simple with few administrative hurdles for the owner,” said Hall.
When asked, both Stamm and Hall said that they are unaware of any incentives for shoreline restoration in a rebuild such as the one presented by the Oyster House situation.

Hall added, “One encouraging sign was a willingness of the Oyster House owners to partner with the city in the future rebuild of part of Percival Landing onto land rather than over water which is currently the case. This could be a good environmentally sound option for the city once we figure out how to fund the rebuild.”
Above: The Oyster House before demolition in July. The foreground illustrates the convoluted ramp system providing public access to the water.
Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones, who has been actively engaged in the SMP update, agrees that there is room for improvement in this highly developed area of Budd Inlet.
“As you know, Percival Landing is kinda funny, right in the area of the Oyster House. To stay on the boardwalk you have to go down one ramp, across a float, and back up another ramp. In some ways, it's nice to get close to the water, but the current design breaks up the connection between one part of the landing and the other. At the time this section of the landing comes due for refurbishment, it makes sense to consider our options for connecting up the two halves of the boardwalk. Perhaps this would involve some sort of land deal, including the Oyster House, but that decision is way out in the future.”

Jones added, “I am glad that the Oyster House is committed to Olympia and intends to rebuild. This is a difficult time for any business to lose income. The reconstruction must be very disruptive to the staff who depend upon the restaurant for their paycheck. If there were a workable way for the business to relocate so they were not over the water, I would be interested. And if there were a workable way for them to make improvements to the shoreline in the process of rebuilding, I would be interested. But, I don't see that the city has the ability to make these things happen. Private business will pursue those things which make sense to private business.

“While the Oyster House fire is a significant loss and has had a dramatic impact on our downtown, I expect that most of that impact will be short lived. Before long, they will be serving sandwich baskets and oyster shooters just like before,” said Jones.
The Threat of Storm Surges and Sea Level Rise

Above: Budd Inlet, left, threatens to drown the Oyster House restaurant, its parking lot, and nearby Sylvester Street during a 16.2 foot high tide incident in December 2012. Electrical wiring and light posts are also visibly under water. On the far, upper left, the Washington State Capitol Building can be seen in the distance.

During the most recent high tide event in December 2012, city staff and community members witnessed the forces of Budd Inlet covering the Oyster House’s parking lot with storm surge literally lapping at the outer walls of the restaurant, and waterlogging outdoor electrical outlets. This incident, measuring a 16.2 foot high tide, was not even the worst on record for this area.

A strongly worded portion of the city's Storm and Surface Water Utility section of the restoration appendix to Olympia's draft SMP acknowledges that climate change will "considerably influence the kinds of restoration implemented, when it is implemented, and how successfully. Known influences of a change in climate have not been confirmed, but potential effects include longer periods of drought, increased instances of flooding, changes and shifts in plant and wildlife populations, reduced snow accumulations and melt and sea-level rise."

The council agreed late last month to get rid of zero setback incentives for developers to create more height if they added amenities such as trails, vegetation buffers, and make an effort combat sea level rise on the Budd Inlet side of the isthmus and Percival Landing. 

The discussion took shoreline restoration advocates, including members of Friends of the Waterfront, and some council members off guard, complicating the SMP conversation late in the game.

When asked about it, Stamm insists the zero setback concept was suggested by council and specific approaches were proposed by staff after reviewing flexible incentive approaches adopted by other jurisdictions.

“The various incentive packages were provided by staff in response to requests from the city council for proposals for how the standards could be more ‘flexible’ and how such flexibility provisions might create incentives for shoreline restoration and enhancement beyond what would be required to mitigate the impacts of development,” says Stamm. 
Above: Budd Inlet threatens Bayview Thriftway during the early morning hours of a high tide event in December 2012. The water rose even further an hour later. This is the northwest corner of the building containing a deli. Picture is taken from Percival Landing.
The SMP Draft and Restaurants

One major area of contention with the SMP draft was restaurants.

“In the latest draft, restaurants, especially water-oriented restaurants, are allowed in many shoreline designations, but they would not be permitted in some more restrictive shoreline environments such as ‘natural’ and ‘conservancy.’ Grass Lake, Chambers Lake and much of Capitol Lake is ‘conservancy’ shoreline.  And in many cases, although the shoreline program might allow such uses, they are prohibited by the underlying residential zoning,” says Stamm.
Asked about various South Sound restaurants along Budd Inlet and their distance from the water, Stamm responded, “According to the city’s shoreline inventory, although it’s generally behind the Port Plaza at its closest point, Anthony’s Homeport is only about 30 feet from the ordinary high water mark, also known as the shoreline. Our estimate is that Bayview grocery is set back 22 feet at its closest point, and Tugboat Annie’s is over water in part, possibly by as much as 30 feet – it is definitely not a good example of zero setback with incentives as it doesn’t include any of the enhancement that would be required."  

Above and Below: TugBoat Annie's restaurant on West Bay Drive significantly extends over the water.
All three restaurants are located on different sides of Budd Inlet: Anthony’s Homeport is on the eastside of Budd Inlet, Bayview Thriftway is downtown on the southern end, and TugBoat Annie’s is located on West Bay Drive.

Bayview’s deli is in the northwest corner of the building, closest to the water. It is so close, that during the high tide event in December 2012, the massive forces of Budd Inlet rose precipitously near to the back door of the deli portion of Bayview. Windows on the second floor of the Bayview deli overlook Percival Landing and Budd Inlet, making it a popular luncheon and informal meeting area for community members.

Stamm says the Bayview Thriftway deli does qualify as a restaurant, even though it is within the same building as the grocery store,  (but) “this does not mean that if new, the entire building would qualify as a ‘water enjoyment’ use,” Stamm said, emphasizing the word ‘not.’ To be clear, Stamm clarified that putting a small ‘water enjoyment’ use, like a deli, inside a larger building wouldn’t allow a developer to place a large structure where it would not otherwise be allowed.

In a case of déjà vu, the rebuild of the portion of the Oyster House over the water would be under the same rules as the rebuild of Genoa's restaurant a few years ago, which also burned down.  Now Anthony's Hearthfire Grill restaurant at Northpoint, it has a different appearance, but was rebuilt in the same location, on pilings overlooking Budd Inlet, within same footprint as Genoa’s.

Regarding unintentionally damaged or destroyed structures, a new section was added to the draft SMP:
In the event that a structure or building housing a nonconforming use is damaged or destroyed by fire, explosion, act of nature, or act of public enemy, such damage or destruction shall not constitute a discontinuation of the nonconforming use. In the event that a structure or building housing an existing use considered a “conditional” use is damaged or destroyed by fire, explosion, act of nature, or act of public enemy, such use may be re-established without obtaining a conditional use permit.

This section further states, as in the current SMP, that in order to take advantage of this section, “a complete application for a building permit must be submitted within one year of the unintended event that caused the destruction of the structure. The applicant loses their rights under this subsection if the building permit lapses without construction of the structure proposed under the building permit.”

“Where the public seeks to enhance or restore the environment and not just mitigate adverse impacts, there is always a careful balance to be struck between the obligation of private property owners to be imposed by regulations, and efforts of volunteers, the public and government,” says Stamm.
The Regulatory Roles and Responsibilities of the City and State: Restoration vs. Mitigation

Chrissy Bailey, shoreline planner at the Washington State Department of Ecology, is working with the City of Olympia on its update of the SMP. She was asked several questions about the plans for the Oyster House, whether there are any opportunities or incentives for private property owners to help with Puget Sound shoreline restoration, and the respective city and state responsibilities.
Bailey responded, “Since the city’s new SMP hasn’t been adopted or approved yet, the rebuild of the Oyster House would have to comply with the regulations in the city’s current SMP.  If they are building waterward of the ordinary high water mark, there are other permits and approvals they would have to get as well, from other agencies.” 

“As far as the SMP goes, the city is actually the main permitting agency, not Ecology.  There are certain types of permits we also have to approve after the city does (conditional use permits and variance permits) but exemptions and substantial development permits are issued by the city and Ecology only gets notified that they have been issued. Permit decisions can be appealed to the Shoreline Hearings Board.”
“Generally, if there will be impacts to shoreline resources, mitigation is required. Ecology cannot require restoration, we can only require mitigation equivalent to the impacts of any project.” 

“The SMP guidelines strictly limit Ecology’s authority to require mitigation,” Bailey says, and quotes the relevant Washington Administrative Code, “in excess of that necessary to assure development results in no net loss of shoreline ecological functions.” 
Bailey is careful to differentiate between the terms restoration and mitigation.

“As you mentioned, there could be an improvement in the ecological condition from mitigation a project proponent has to do as a result of impacts associated with their project, impacts that couldn’t be avoided or minimized, or from restoration that is done voluntarily.” 
“Many jurisdictions that update their SMPs include incentives for restoration to try and exceed “no net loss” and actually improve ecological conditions or functions.  Olympia has been tossing that around and I’m not sure how it will shake out in the new SMP.”

“Basically, I would say the city’s main responsibility would be to assure any reconstruction complies with the applicable regulations in their SMP and any other city codes, which may include the need for mitigation.  Often times if structures are rebuilt to the exact same extent they existed before a fire or other disaster, jurisdictions don’t consider that to be an intensification - rather it’s a return to the baseline that existed before the disaster - and so they will not require mitigation. 

“Any restoration would be voluntary, and I am not familiar with any incentives that exist at this time under the Shoreline Master Act.  There are grants available to entities that want to do shoreline restoration so I think there are opportunities to do something different, it just depends on if the project proponent or land owner wants to do it.”
No-Net Loss vs. Net Gain: Is Budd Inlet Really a Priority?

As defined in the draft SMP, under Chapter 3.69, 18.34.850, “restoration is the reestablishment or upgrading of impaired ecological shoreline processes or functions. This may be accomplished through measures including, but not limited to, revegetation, removal of intrusive shoreline structures, and removal or treatment of toxic materials. Restoration does not imply a requirement for returning the shoreline area to aboriginal or pre-European settlement conditions.”

Open to debate perhaps is the definition of “intrusive shoreline structures” which, for some, could mean certain area restaurants, and the Olympia Yacht Club.
Above: The Olympia Yacht Club with new support beams as seen from Percival Landing in July.
In an appendix to the city's draft SMP, the following four priorities and associated restoration projects are identified: improve water quality in Budd Inlet and its tributaries; improve natural sediment processes; preserve and restore wildlife habitat; and restore shorelines as opportunities for humans to connect with the natural environment.

No doubt, Budd Inlet has seen improvements in the form of greater stormwater control, the new Percival Landing boardwalk structure projects, the removal of about 200 creosote pilings, restoration of an acre of shoreline to function as a native habitat, park development, West Bay site clean-ups, and general public education efforts. The Port of Olympia continues to test the high concentration of dioxin-laden sediments which will lead to the development of a clean-up plan. The continued work of the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) water quality study of contaminants of concern in the Deschutes River, Capitol Lake, and Budd Inlet, led by the state Department of Ecology is also underway.

A comprehensive list of projects intended to restore Budd Inlet was identified by the Squaxin Island Tribe in 2010. Of those projects, 53 were identified in or within 500 feet of the City of Olympia. Of those 53 projects, 27 have been identified as potentially feasible for evaluation or implementation within the next 10 years with the City of Olympia as the lead or partner agency. Implementation schedules for many projects in the downtown area are to be determined by funding availability and/or redevelopment.

However, the biggest, most effective proposal toward Budd Inlet restoration, advocates say, would be the removal of the dam built on Budd Inlet in 1951, which blocks sediment transportation from the Deschutes River and Percival Creek into Budd Inlet.
The community will continue to pursue the delicate balance between human uses of our shorelines with environmental protection, but will we keep focusing on a goal of no net loss or will we begin to work toward environmental net gains?
Above: Sea stars attach themselves to the pilings holding up TugBoat Annie's restaurant in June.