SEPA – when it really matters, or does it?

By Marianne Lincoln [Podcast link]

[Editor Update:

[Editor Update: Wetland Variance, Tommy’s Carwash, Application Number: 979272
Related Application Numbers: 958554 and 975551
Tax Parcel Numbers: 0319121055, 0319121057 and 0319121058
Examiner’s Hearing: March 30, 2022, at 9 A.M., at the Pierce County Public Services Building,
South Entrance, Public Meeting Room, 2401 South 35th Street, Tacoma, WA 98409.]

SEPA is an innocuous term. It stands for State Environmental Policy Act. What it represents is far more important. Asking for a SEPA or its larger buddy an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) mean much more study and paperwork must be done before something can be built. It represents lots of human work hours and public hearings. Translated, it means adding considerable expense to a project in the name of protecting the environment.

SEPA, the baby brother to the EIS is triggered when a project exceeds certain established limits, or is not considered CATEGORICALLY EXEMPT, as outlined in the SEPA RULES (WAC 197-11- 800).

Listed above are the most common activities that trigger SEPA review.

On a SEPA checklist are the following: Earth, air, water, plants, animals, energy, natural resources, environmental health, noise, land and shoreline use, housing, aesthetics, light and glare, recreation, historic and cultural preservation, transportation, public services, and utilities. Things that bother, disturb, or harm those within the area.

With that identified, this story is about a project that was recently a topic of the Mid-County Advisory Commission (MCAC), formerly called Land Use Advisory Commission (LUAC). The hearing went to the commission because the builders requested a waiver, called a “variance” to the wetland setback designated by environmental rules. If they had not needed this waiver, the MCAC, and the public, would not have seen these building plans at all because it is a private business, not a government project.

The developer wants to put a car wash at the Southwest corner of 116th and Canyon Road. The two lots this business will occupy have wetlands on their western boundary. They are also lower than the Canyon Road deck by about 6 feet. The 5243 sq. ft. car wash building as designed, will come close to the wetland on the south corner because the wetland boundary is not a straight line. The distance is 22 feet. A normal setback from the wetlands is 80 feet according to the county. Hence, a variance is required and that requires permissions and conditions.

Here are photos of the property on the date of the hearing, 3-8-22.

The MCAC is made up of community members who are appointed by the County Council and approved by the County Executive. Terry Wise, a developer himself, is the committee chair.

First, is a presentation by the County. In this case, a Biologist was the presenter, Dara Kessler. [Dara S. Kessler, MS Environmental Biologist at Pierce County Planning and Land Services] She showed the maps that were submitted by the developer. These pictures were screen shots from the computer Zoom call. They show the proposed building, setbacks, wetland boundaries delineated in 2018 (according to the county), parking, entryway, and more. The presentation also noted the proposed mitigations for the site’s release of treated wastewater and plantings in the buffer area.

The biologist stated the project was exempt from doing a SEPA. She also stated that plantings in the buffer would absorb water from the wetland and that the water was not part of a larger wetland conduit system.

Then the representatives of the developer spoke. Rachel Husting, representing the engineer who was not present, did not say anything of particular note at the moment.

Matt DeCaro, of Soundview Construction, in his comments said the wetland area was mowed by owners of the small local farms and the wetland pond was probably excavated, created in the 1970’s. He went on to say, the buffer is the minimum administratively allowed buffer, that there will be a stormwater diversion trench at the edge of the built area. The water from the car wash would be directed to an underground detention vault, then to a treatment system including an oil/water separator, but was not specific about other treatment processes or the products used in cleaning that would enter the water. Mr. DeCaro then noted the discharge would be about 88% back into the wetland complex, dispersed into the buffer and about 12% into the stormwater pipes along Canyon Road. He noted they would maintain the water quality within wetland to the west and plant cedar, willow, crab apple, ash and about 320 other native shrubs int he buffer including 80 swordferns, buttercups and upland grass. He referred to a “Kimley Horne Stormwater Analysis – Model 2 approach,” preexisting vs. post construction that was conducted, but no information was supplied. He said the owner wants to encourage an automotive related business to be on the site if for any reason the car wash ended up being unfeasible.

The opportunity for the public to speak was next. First, was Eric Offerdahl, son of neighboring homeowners northwest of the site on 116th who have lived there since 1982. He said there is a creek called Canyon Creek running through the middle of the site. In 1996, the water was a little over 4 feet deep in the middle, up to their mailboxes and over the road. Since that time, he said the county raised the road (116th) a little. He expressed concern about noise, lights, hours of operation, traffic and the area wildlife including deer and owls. He noted no traffic study was presented.

Next to speak was Cindy Beckett of Midland, a licensed EPA Watershed Steward. She noted that it is illegal to dump unclean surface water into a wetland, that the water from the site flows all the way to the Puyallup River and that requires the County to contact the state about the project because the Puyallup is a river under federal jurisdiction.

Then Robert Koreis expressed concern that this is possibly a salmon spawning affecting area.

The Chamber Clover Watershed Council approved a letter to the project stating: The Chambers Clover Watershed Council (CCWC) recognizes this area as a wetland that is in an area that may drain into our watershed. Water quality setback laws do the best they can to protect the integrity and quality of our watersheds. All life derives from the presence of healthy water. The CCWC wishes to state that they support setback laws as written, as important tools to protect water whether adjacent to commercial or private land.

Following reading the CCCWC letter, Marianne Lincoln spoke. Although she currently resides in Spanaway, Marianne was born in 1957 at 101st and Canyon Road, before SR512 was built. She expressed that she is familiar with the waterway as it also passed by the back of her family property at 101st and Canyon as a creek, which she played in as a child. She noted she has taken photos before the meeting because she was visiting a friend who lives on 47th Avenue and 121st Street on the far side of the wetland. Her friends, the LaForge family have owned that property since 1915. Although Archie passed away 25 years ago, Arlene stated he told her about ice skating on that pond that was so high it went over the fences in the winter in the late 1920’s. Then she gave the parcel number of the property and asked the Country representative to write it down. In 1930, a concrete culvert was constructed on their property that directs waster under what is now 47th Avenue and 50th avenue and discharges into another wetland to the west which drains into Clover Creek. This wetland affects two different watersheds. The pond has always existed; it was not carved out in the 1970’s as Mr. DeCaro suggested. Lincoln went on to suggest that the recent discovery of 6PPD quinone from automobile tires is an agent that has been determined to kill Coho salmon and inquired if that would be dealt with on site since this wetland discharges to salmon bearing waterways.

Matt DeCaro rebutted, “We are not directly discharging directly into stream, it will be ‘cleaned’ first.”   The project is not located in a flood plain.   The Pierce County GIS stream map shows it offsite to the north of 116th, but not adjacent to this site. [note the above GIS photo]

Ms. Kessler noted the wetland delineation happened in 2018 and that the Washington DNR, Fish and Wildlife showed the nearest fish presence as 1.5 miles north of the site.

The meeting went back to the committee. The developer was asked, what they would do without the variance. He answered, “Develop the property in another way or sell to another buyer.”

Fred Ramey: Asked about the comment on noise, hours, lights, etc.

Dara Kessler:  I’m afraid I cannot answer that question.

Terry Wise: There are noise ordinances.

Rachel Husting: Open hours will end at 9 or 10pm, not 2am.

Gina Bua: It’s not just water, the wetlands are protected to support animal life. The noise might/will scare away animals that will be there. They will encroach on other properties. Does the report only look at water, or does it look at wildlife?

Dara Kessler: Matt knows the report better than me.

Matt DeCaro: No, it does not. Our report is the wetland mitigation plan only. It is not considered a critical area. No species was identified by County or their contractor. The Impact Analysis & Mitigation Plan was for the wetland.

Giovanni Vendetti: PALS is going to be recommending approval after the Hearings Examiner weighs in, I am going to support this, there will more due diligence done. To Dara and the County staff, please tell staff a report could be done so we can get more information that we don’t know.

Gary Gubser: Can the cumulative effects create an impact downstream? Could this be something else, not a car wash?

Dwight Otis: There is a car wash 1/4 mile away, another at 176th… seems like this is not a project I would recommend.

Gina Bua: Noted the comments from Eric, Cindy, & Marianne (and water quality orgs) I would support a different commercial use. I recommend disapproval.

Terry Wise: We hire trained experts in wetland biology & make the applicant hire experts. They are agreeing that this will improve the wetland. He noted the “Trained expertise.” We ponder, then completely ignore the science and the experts; it seems like every project should be somewhere else. Move it 3 blocks north, it ends up in the same aquifer.

Eric – to Gary: It’s Summit View; it’s one of those areas you want to maintain a country lifestyle. There’s a creek that runs through there.

Fred Ramey: It seems like you say you don’t like when we question things. That’s what we are here for. If we are not questioning things, why are we here as a commission?

Terry Wise: I have no problem with the questioning. If 10 experts all agree, don’t they have a right to be listened to? (His comments continued for a few minutes.)

Fred Ramey: If he goes on a 3 minute rant, so can I. [A bit of comment and conflict removed]

Matt DeCaro:  I am a principle at Soundview Consultants. It’s (the property) been mowed for 79-80 years. It will be protected forever. Although we have to seek a variance, I still feel way good about this.

Mid-County LUAC voted to approve the variance, 7-1.

Terry Wise – yes, Gary Gubser – yes, Giovanni Vendetti – yes, Herb Bickle – Yes, Gina Bua – no, Michael Allen yes, Dwight Otis – yes, Fred Ramey – yes.

Additional information on this development application can be found in an online permit search at Pierce County Planning and Land Services, Permit # 981626.

Maps from the Pierce County GIS on 3-10-2022

One Comment Add yours

  1. Al Schmauder says:

    Great reporting.
    Citizens need to know how local development projects are approved.
    In this case it appears facts are scarce and County staff are anxious to favor a project that harms the wetland and could pollute the groundwater.

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