Sunday, May 10, 2015

Approved and Appealed: Thurston County’s Oak Tree Land Use Case

Above: Liz Lyman, center, looks at the maps of the proposed Oak Tree Preserve development before the hearing held at the Thurston County fairgrounds on March 23, 2015.

By Janine Unsoeld
The proposed development called the Oak Tree Preserve was approved on April 24 by Thurston County Hearing Examiner Sharon Rice, and that decision was appealed by concerned citizens by the deadline, May 8.
Several citizens living near the property stepped up to appeal the decision, including Liz Lyman, who is now acting as the official spokesperson for the appeal.
Contacted this weekend by Little Hollywood, Lyman says she appreciates all the efforts of concerned neighbors and community members to save a 258.5 acre wooded area in Lacey’s urban growth area of Thurston County.
Other appellants are Liz Kohlenberg, Robert Self, Bonnie Self, the Black Hills Audubon Society, William Koopman and Felicia “Lisa” Carroll.
Oak Tree Preserve, LLC is seeking to develop the property into 1,037 small, single family residential units. The project is proposed to be developed in Thurston County’s largest stand of Oregon White Oaks - just over 79 acres. It is also home to a wide range of birds, animals and plants.
The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife designates the Oregon White Oak as priority habitat. If this development is ultimately approved as it is currently proposed, 36 acres of that priority habitat  - 45 percent - will be destroyed to build houses and infrastructure.
The remaining oak stand will be fragmented. The developer proposes to build one of the two main connector roads through the remaining oak stand. That road will be the only road from the site to Marvin Road for the first two phases of the development, significantly impacting the habitat.
The area in the unincorporated area of Lacey on Marvin Road is bordered by the Burlington Northern Railroad and the McAllister Park and Evergreen Estates subdivisions.
Few neighbors were notified of the proposed development. Those who were took to the streets, informed others, and created an online petition against the development that garnered nearly 300 supporters in about four days.
Carroll and Koopman have also created a Facebook page, The Thurston Oaks. Both are fresh Thurston County environmental activist voices, and learning the process as they go along.
After the hearing examiner’s decision but before she decided to become an appellant, Carroll said she and the neighbors of her Evergreen Estates subdivision were saddened, but then felt empowered to do more.
“The fact is, Evergreen Estates will bear the brunt of it - we only have 27th Avenue as our main road and there are going to be 300 homes added at the end of 27th....The size of this project makes it all that more unfortunate that 20th century standards were applied to a 21st century world.  We must do better.  And it looks like it’s up to us citizens of Thurston County to make that change.”
Koopman agreed, lamenting a wide range of environmental concerns:
 “…The effects of the new development on the communities and homes bordering Marvin…cannot be underestimated….The entire area drains into the Nisqually Watershed, by way of McAllister Springs, McAllister Creek and thus the Puget Sound. The additional pollutants - herbicides, pesticides, plastics, storm water runoffs - will undoubtedly further impact the health of the watershed, Puget Sound, the shellfish, and of course, the salmon.
“There is also the issue of oil train-traffic, which is growing exponentially in this area. This new development is bordered by the railroad. All of the homes located therein are in an area considered by the U.S. Department of Transportation as a potential evacuation or impact zone in case of an oil train derailment and/or explosion. If coal trains start their travels through the county as well, what of our air-quality, especially of those developments bordering the tracks?
“There are indeed a host of further items of interest….Amazingly, all of this has been approved without an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) having been performed. Through a series of Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance (MDNS) the EIS has been out-maneuvered and rendered mute. The EIS is the people’s voice of safe, responsible and sustainable environmental practices that assure all Thurston County residents of an accountable, transparent mode of responsible stewardship of our County’s land use and the safety of our population through enforcements concerning proposed land use developments, clean water and clean air. I believe our county residents require more from the Thurston County Resource Stewardship Department than a rubberstamp of approval on such a highly contentious development project,” said Koopman.
Liz Lyman, who lives in The Seasons subdivision, served on the Thurston County Planning Commission from 1999 to 2007, including two years as chair and two years as vice chair. She also has experience with land use planning for protecting wildlife habitats and nearshore water quality in Puget Sound's urbanized areas.
“I've only met Lisa and Bill once, but they seem deeply and genuinely committed to protecting habitat for wildlife -- birds in particular. I applaud them for all of their efforts. It's truly heartening to meet people like them,” said Lyman.

Appeal Claims
The funds contributed for the appeal filing were from homeowners in Evergreen Estates, The Seasons, and the Black Hills Audubon Society.
In the appeal, appellant’s claim that the hearing examiner’s decision erred by not requiring avoidance of removing oak trees as the primary method of protecting the oak woodlands as required by Thurston County regulations.
They also say she erred by not using “best available science” to evaluate the Oregon White Oak woodland, determine if any of the acreage can be removed without causing irreparable harm to the habitat, and determine the mitigation strategy for the oak that must be removed.
Petitioners are requesting the collection of a more robust record on avoidance and best available science, and a new hearing examiner review after that record is created.   
They also request that the new record include testimony from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state agency charged with protecting priority habitat including oak woodlands, and several other topics.
Next Steps
Lyman says she continues to turn away people who want to contribute to the nearly $900 it took to appeal the land use decision in Thurston County.
“I have spoken with homeowners in The Seasons and Eagle Crest, which is a neighboring subdivision….Many homeowners are simply incredulous about the hearing examiner's decision on the Oak Tree Preserve preliminary plat. The issues they're concerned about may vary, but the common thread is that they're very unhappy….and are feeling let down by the county. The board of The Seasons considered appealing, but decided against it because the odds of prevailing are not in its favor and it's entrusted with the homeowners' funds. The Seasons' board was wonderful, though, in getting the word out to our homeowners through the association's own website,” she said. There are 215 homes in The Seasons.
“We have many avid birders who are keenly interested in the outcome of this appeal. Many of us have worked hard to create a bird-friendly environment, something that will be impacted rather dramatically and negatively if the Oak Tree Preserve development proceeds….The destruction of the Oregon White Oak habitat will be devastating to the bird population,” said Lyman.
As for the appeal, the next step is to wait for the county to post the documents filed on May 8 on its website, which should occur early next week. Then, the developer has 14 days to file their response to the appeal as well as to others that may have been filed. Then, the appellants have seven days to file their responses or rebuttals.
The County Commissioners have 60 days to make their decision from the date an appeal is posted. A decision on the case could be made before mid-July.
For three previous articles on the Oak Tree Preserve case, go to Little Hollywood, and use the search button using key words.