No one is saying that building high-density apartments on almost 18 acres of land between the Snoqualmie River and North Bend Way east of the city core won’t have environmental impacts. Staff members with the city, along with a resident group that is calling on the city to declare a building moratorium on the project, all agree that the construction of 212 housing units on the land will have an effect.
“We agree with the citizens that there will be environmental impacts,” said North Bend City Administrator Londi Lindell, discussing the project.
What to do about that impact, both to the Dahlgren property, also known as the mule pasture, and to the larger city, is where they differ in opinion.
Friends of the Snoqualmie Trail and River announced in a press release that they believe “such a high-density residential development will put too much of a strain on such an environmentally sensitive piece of land so close to the Snoqualmie River and Trail.”
However, according to the city’s nearly complete review of the environmental impacts of the project, all of them can be mitigated, or reduced in impact through impact fees or other adjustments.
“We haven’t found anything that cannot be mitigated,” said North Bend Community and Economic Development Coordinator David Miller.
More importantly, the city’s review has not unveiled any impact of the project that would trigger the creation of the more detailed, state-defined environmental impact statement.
“We haven’t found anything with the legal authority to require an environmental impact statement,” Miller said. “You have to find that they have an impact that can’t be mitigated.”
Lindell emphasized that the city’s own review of the project, conducted by an independent consultant, included not only the environmental impacts but also the historical documentation on the property, to determine the proposal’s overall impact to the city.
“We are analyzing all adverse environmental impacts,” she said, adding that the data from the review will determine whether the city can proceed with an environmental impact statement. “The city can’t simply require an EIS. We don’t have the authority, unless after that review is conducted, the facts support it.”
The Friends group, though, believes the facts already support a full environmental impact statement process. Although the developers have agreed to donate 3.5 acres of the property to the city for open space, the remaining 17.5 acres, they say, would be better “purchased for a park and a possible location for a natural interpretive pavilion or other uses that fit within the city’s vision and mission statement of maintaining rural character and becoming a premiere outdoor destination area,” according to the press release.
The North Bend city website lists its mission as: “to create a highly livable community by working in partnership with its citizens to blend and balance the following principles: high levels of police, fire, and emergency medical services; healthy infrastructure; quality public services; all to support a strong local economy and the rural character of the community.”
The city’s brand statement, immediately below the mission on the website, is: “We are the small town that is creating the premiere outdoor adventure destination in the Puget Sound region.”
Potential impacts of the project on recreation opportunities and the view from the road are top concerns for group members.
Steve Sieker said, in the press release, “It’s a shame that the city is allowing something so completely out of character for the Valley…a wall of two- and three- story buildings, similar to what is creeping up the hillside west of Issaquah. The buildings will also obscure Mt Si, the view that most associate with North Bend.”
In addition, Sarah Burd said “As a runner, who uses the trail frequently, I would hate to have a wall of buildings instead of the pristine land that is currently there. I’m concerned about the development’s impact on the recreational use of the trail, especially safety as you have to cross the Snoqualmie Valley Trail on North Bend Way very close to the proposed site.….”
Other group members are concerned about the impact of the project on local water quality and availability, claiming the the developer can currently secure water for only half the proposed development.
Another concern, shared by the city and the group and already partially addressed, is the overall density of the project. The land is zoned high-density residential, which would have allowed for one unit per 2,000 square feet of land, but in late 2016, the North Bend City Council reduced the allowed density on the site through an emergency ordinance.
“The density currently allows 212 units and that’s well below what the zoning for HDR would allow,” Miller said. “The previous code would allow them a little over 240 units.”
That change, made before the developer, Shelter Holdings, was “vested” in its application process, forced the company to reduce the number of planned units. The city also limited the heights of some buildings — those to be sited along North Bend Way — to two stories only, increased setback requirements, required additional denser landscaping, and required design elements typical of alpine buildings.
Shelter Holdings is now vested, and subject to those last code changes, but the project will not be affected by any future code changes, including another density reduction the North Bend City Council approved in early 2017. If the company were to abandon the project or fail to apply for a building permit within the designated time frame, the property owners and any future developer who might consider the land will be subject to the new requirement, of approximately 165 units on the site.
The Friends organization has hired an environmental land use attorney, Claudia Newman of Bricklin and Newman, and a consultant Michael Jackman, former deputy for the city of Bellevue’s utilities department, to help make their case against the development to the city.
They will have to move quickly, though, if they hope to delay the project.
Miller said earlier this week that data collection for the environmental review was nearly complete and a determination should be available by the end of February.
“They will be able to make the spring building schedule if they stay on track,” he added.
And if they mitigate all of the issues raised so far. They are centered primarily on the development’s effect on traffic patterns and the area’s view, Miller said and the developer has agreed to the city’s requirements on those issues.
To address traffic, “They’re going to be paying over $1.4 million into a roundabout,” to be built along the site’s frontage on North Bend Way, Miller said, and “their mitigation fees are going to be a couple million into off-site traffic improvements.”
The group is meeting all of the city’s requirements to address stormwater retention and limiting the size and height of its buildings, as well as allowing 60-foot “view corridors” to preserve views of Mount Si in the area.
Further, Miller said, based on the results of a program that superimposes the projected building and landscaping over the view of Mount Si from North Bend Way, the visual impact of the project from the street is surprisingly small.
“Mount Si is so high that the building doesn’t obscure the view,” he said. “A good 80 to 90 percent of the mountain is showing clearly, and the trees are screening (the building) pretty well.”
Miller, who joined the city staff last fall and has personally experienced the challenge of finding an affordable rental home in the Valley, is excited about the Shelter Holdings project, both for what he considers its excellent design elements and the potential it brings for the city’s housing and employment markets.
“This is probably the best looking complex of buildings that has been presented to North Bend, ever,” he said. “They are architecturally treated on all sides… they all have enclosed parking under them, they are really designed very well.”
He said he understands the opposition people feel in general to development, but emphasized how readily the developer has responded to all city requirements. He expected the opposition would fade over time.
“If we want a job-housing balance, we have to provide the housing and we have to provide the jobs and we’re working on both… but until we have the facilities to provide the jobs and the housing, we’re going to be a bedroom community.”
“Once this is built and in place, people will have a different attitude about it,” he added.