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Old mill, new visions: Stakeholders, city weigh past impacts, future role in annex debate

The still waters of Lake Borst hold promise in former timberland manager Dick Ryon
The still waters of Lake Borst hold promise in former timberland manager Dick Ryon's vision. He'd like to see the former Weyerhaeuser mill pond be part of a parks and flood protection system in the city of Snoqualmie. The future of the mill site is being defined in this summer's debate on annexation conditions.
— image credit: Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record

The milfoil spreads like a green carpet from Dick Ryon’s vantage point on Mill Pond Road, overlooking the old Weyerhaeuser mill pond, Borst Lake.

The aquatic plant has thrived since the pond became a closed system after the 2009 flood. Other life thrives, too. Somewhere in the distance, a woodpecker trills in the treeline, and a throaty call of a frog interrupts Ryon’s reminiscing. The amphibian’s song is a good sign.

“If there are frogs here, it’s a healthy pond,” he says.

Borst Lake is much changed since Ryon first came here in the 1970s. At that time, the mill pond was alive in a different way. Instead of milfoil, the surface surged with rafts of old-growth timber, shepherded around by small, powerful boats.

Fallen firs were put into the lake by the thousands, the water protecting them from hungry insects, before being returned to the land to be sawn into lumber.

“There were log rafts in here by this hundreds,” remembers Ryon, a North Bend resident and 20-year Weyerhaeuser employee. “It was exciting to see this thing. No one thought it was being degrading to the environment. We were using the environment.”

As the company’s land use manager, the decisions of Ryon’s team helped define the Valley today.

“This is my legacy,” he said, taking in the river vista.

His company background gives Ryon a unique insight into the debate currently swirling around the future of this place. Part of the group of stakeholders that drafted rules for new industry at the site, Ryon has long pondered what the best use is for the vast former mill. He’s been airing his ideas publicly in hearings on the annexation of the 600-acre Mill Planning Area, and is waiting to see the city’s plans for the site’s future. One of many people weighing the past and present use of the site and the needs of residents today, Ryon is reaching for a new vision at the old mill.

Public agreement

The Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company began operations 101 years ago. At its height, the mill employed 1,200 people, and was a self-contained community with its own water and electricity system, company store, hotel, barber shop, hospital and YMCA. But fortunes changed, and as the old-growth log economy disappeared, so did the mill town. The mill shut down in 2003, and the site was partially dismantled.

The mill may have gone quiet, but the environmental footprint lingered. In three surveys between 1993 and 2005, inspectors found petroleum by-products in the soil in several places.

“This whole mill site was inspected for hazardous environments,” Ryon said. While he is quick to point out that it is not a toxic site, “it was not a clean bill of health.”

In the mid-1980s, “Weyerhauser was really wearing a black hat,” Ryon said. “We were not well-liked by the environmental community. They didn’t trust us, they didn’t like anything we were doing because we had such control of the environment. We could make whole hillsides disappear.”

The city of Snoqualmie, meanwhile, was a tiny town “with a gigantic opportunity to have this big city on the hill.”

Weyerhaeuser wanted the city’s support for its Snoqualmie Ridge master-planned community. The city wanted the huge mill next door to annex into city limits. Weyerhaeuser, however, was leery of the new taxes that would come with annexation, and resisted. The result was the so-called P-Suffix to the Snoqualmie Comprehensive Plan, which spelled out what environmental and developmental changes the next industrial user of the mill site would have to make while the land remained outside city limits.

The compact calls for bank restoration and public access along the river, 50-foot buffers for residential areas, and a portion of the property to be set aside as open space. Water drainage that prevents aggravation of flood problems and a transportation plan that minimizes single-occupant cars, is also called for, as is restoration of the mill pond and removal of sinker logs and fill.

Ryon never thought Weyerhaeuser would close up shop and leave. He never dreamed that the vast timber mill would give way to adventure tourism.

“We all want this thing to be producing jobs,” he said. The sale price, around $3 million for the site, is “peanuts.”

With new owner Snoqualmie Mill Ventures coming into city limits—the annexation is triggered by disagreement between the county, city and property owners over whether the site’s DirtFish Rally School is redevelopment—the P-Suffix is overruled by city codes. But Ryon and others believe the flooding and environmental concerns addressed in the compact are still valid.

“Somebody has to come forward from the city and say that the new owner will be held to as high or higher a standard as the P-Suffix,” he said. “If they can’t say that, it’s a loss to the city.”

“The question has to be asked: Is the city in a position to regulate the use of this property, to regulate the environmental cleanup they wanted us to do?” Ryon said. “They have the opportunity to be stewards of this property, and they don’t seem to be stepping up.”

Calling for action

A grassroots group, YourSnoqualmieValley.org, has publicly called for provisions of the P-Suffix compact to apply to city annexation.

Members of the group testified at both the July 5 Snoqualmie planning commission meeting and the July 11 city council meeting, urged that the annex be paused to consider environment and flood concerns on the mill property. Every group speaker, county and city residents among them, said the annex must be rejected until the entire property has an environmental review and zoning is amended to provide the same protection as the P-Suffix. Members of the group also aired specific concerns about the appropriateness of considering zoning prior to the annex agreement.

“It’s not about annex or not-annex. This is a much larger issue for us as a community,” said Chrystene Ennis, a city resident, who was among the three YourSnoqualmieValley members who wrote the talking points at the Monday, July 11, meeting.

“The P-Suffix conditions were in place to protect whoever has to deal with that land,” she said. “My overarching concern is that it’s going to cost more money than we get from this business.”

On issues such as drainage or transportation, Ennis believes more work needs to be done to show the true cost of annexation. If the costs outweigh the benefits, “I don’t see any logical reason why we should annex,” she said.

Ennis’ vision is one of good corporate citizenship at the mill site.

“I would like to see responsible land stewardship,” she said. “Annex that land, but do it under fair conditions... We just want to see the things that need to be done... done.”

Wendy Thomas, a Snoqualmie business owner and member of the city’s Economic Development Commission, tried to make flood protection a part of the discussion at last month’s commission meeting. She suggested that the city consider removing fill dirt and the protective berm from around the mill site, to restore part of the Snoqualmie River’s floodplain.

“To me, you have this opportunity to have this tremendous flood storage, that somebody thought was important enough to include in the comp plan,” she said.

Commission President Mike Kirkland dismissed the idea, saying the land had been for sale and any public interest could have bought it, but a private property owner did.

“I don’t think it’s a question of rolling it back to what we could do with that property, because that’s gone. They own it,” he said.

At last Monday’s Snoqualmie City Council meeting, Thomas dubbed the Mill Ventures operation “The Perfect Use.”

“This is an attempt to launder the P-Suffix conditions. I don’t think that’s by any mistake,” said Thomas, who wants the site’s operation closely regulated.

City’s rules

To Snoqualmie City Attorney Pat Anderson, “There is no comparison” between the city of Snoqualmie’s pre-annexation agreement and the P-Suffix compact. “P-Suffix is county zoning.”

Anderson spelled out the city’s protections under the draft pre-annexation agreement with Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Development Company and Snoqualmie Mill Ventures. It addresses, “as much as we can, all the things we’ve heard,” he said. “We say we’re going to look at our regulations so we can enable these sorts of adventure destination-type things. We are prohibiting construction of a race track. Also, we are prohibiting racing in the normal, day-to-day operations of the school.”

The agreement maintains the status quo at the mill site.

“It says they can repair and maintain it but they can’t improve it or enlarge it,” Anderson said. “They can have special events.” But anything beyond that must go through the city’s development regulations, which Anderson described as “very process heavy... to ensure that development meets the standards, pays for itself and is appropriately conditioned.”

Under the agreement, land outside the 100-year floodway will be subject to regulations for planned commercial industrial zoning, while that inside will be open space.

The city will defer comprehensive plan annexation policies until development or redevelopment of Weyerhaeuser property is proposed, and until development by Snoqualmie Mill Ventures exceeds the DirtFish use and city-permitted special events. The city will not approve any new development until a review and permitting process takes place.

The draft agreement bans racing at the driving school and allows two special events each year on the property.

The city also wants a sensitive areas study to ensure that the driving school’s operation and events comply with local code. Both the Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Development Company and Mill Ventures will dedicate property for trails, and the landmark powerhouse must be preserved.

The agreement makes no provision for work on the mill pond or berm.

“The flood issue is a non-issue,” Anderson said. “Whether that parcel is annexed or not, it won’t affect the physical flood levels at Snoqualmie one iota.”

Anderson makes no assumptions about whether the property will be annexed or not. Sticking points remain between the city and county, including whether the city will take ownership of adjacent 396th Avenue and whether the county will chip in for repairs to Mill Pond Road.

The biggest reason to go for annexation, to Anderson and to public proponents, is local control.

“What most people in the city believe is that decisions about what happens at the mill site should be made in Snoqualmie City Hall, not King County Council chambers,” Anderson said.

While there is no definite plan, “we like the notion of the adventure park with an outdoor BMX track, rope courses, and even the driving school doesn’t bother us,” Anderson said. “To us, day-to-day operation of the rally school is a non-issue.”

No track

Alison Moss, land use attorney for Snoqualmie Mill Ventures, said she understands the property to be cleaned up to the level it is designated for: commercial and industrial uses.

One site on the property was contaminated with PCBs following a fire. In consultation with the Department of Ecology, Weyerhaeuser agreed that it was best to just leave it alone.

The earth berm no longer functions as such, Moss said. It was intentionally breached years ago in a number of locations.

As issues are raised in the annex process, “We’re trying to address them in good faith,” Moss said.

The city is conducting a noise study on the property, and DirtFish is paying for it.

Reading the clauses of the P-Suffix, “I don’t see in here what the issue is,” Moss said. “If there is something in it that provides value, let’s talk about it. What is it that people would like to carry over that isn’t adequately addressed in the city code?”

“We’re talking about annexing the property, which is the ultimate way for the city to have some say,” she said.

“What we’re doing is simply operating with what’s existing here,” said Ross Bentley, DirtFish Rally School president.  “We can use it absolutely as it is. We don’t need any infrastructure from the city.”

The business has put up its own site, oldmilladventurepark.com, with an FAQ, future vision and statements on the annexation.

Bentley is clear that a NASCAR-style track is not coming.

“Anybody who says there’s going to be a race track here is making that up,” he said. “There is a driving school here... People who say it’s going to be NASCAR—for one, absolutely not. It doesn’t make business sense. The area couldn’t support it. And we don’t want one. And the city and county are not going to allow us one.”

Long-term vision?

Ryon has his own ideas about the future of the mill site and surroundings—an industrial zone for jobs protected from the river by a new extension of Snoqualmie Parkway, and an outer ring of natural, restored land for green space, parks and flood protection.

His first visit to the mill pond was in mid-flood.

"I know how bad it can get here when the flood comes," Ryon said.

The Mill Pond Road bed was built up to keep floodwaters out of Borst Lake, a former oxbow. Thousands of yards of mud were removed from the oxbow to create the lake. Tons of rock were sunk to create a sort yard, and mud was scraped to create a huge earth berm alongside Mill Pond Road that would keep flood waters on the mill site from sending timber downriver.

"My idea is to get rid of Mill Pond Road," Ryon said. "Let it become a natural environment once again."

Ryon said the city needs to address shoreline issues first with an eye on flood prevention.

"There are some legitimate concerns about flooding in the downtown core," Ryon said. "The city thought it was important in 1989. The community still things it's important. The city ought to be paying attention."

He also wants to see the city and property owners invite the community and all stakeholders to agree on the future of the mill, "just like we did in the early '90s."

"There's a lot of good-thinking people who don't agree," Ryon said. "The way it's going to resolve itself and help the new owner put himself into the community is to listen to what these folks are saying. If you don't have a buy-in by all the stakeholders at the beginning, you're never going to win the battle. There will always be hard feelings."

What's ahead

The annexation process continues this summer. In the weeks ahead, the city will begin the hearing process for the preannex agreement. A decision on the zoning will follow approval of that agreement. If the issue of road annexation is resolved, the city may approve an interlocal agreement for annexation with King County. Finally, the city would consider an ordinance annexing the property. All told, the council must hear the public's views in hearings at least three more times.

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