Despite cleanup concerns, Mill Site could bring economic benefits to Snoqualmie

Action on decade-plus Mill Site development proposal expected to come later this month.

Final preparations are being made on the Snoqualmie Mill Site development, as the city council prepares for action on the project later this month. But concerns about the environmental impact and proposed cleanup of the massive project still linger.

A vote on the Snoqualmie Mill Site master plan and a subsequent development agreement between developers and the city is expected to go before council for action on Sept. 26.

Both documents would guide the next two decades of development and allow Snoqualmie Mill Ventures LLC, the developers, to begin applying for building and construction permits.

The master plan in question was first submitted to the city by Mill Ventures in 2017. It proposes a planned community, similar to Snoqualmie Ridge, that would build 1.83 million gross square feet of buildings in three phases over a roughly 20-year stretch.

Proponents of the development say the site has the potential of becoming an economic juggernaut for the city, which faces significant inflationary pressure in wake of the pandemic and needs additional revenue to support ongoing services.

Opponents, however, point out that the Mill Site property is an environmentally complex site in need of cleanup. Last year, the Department of Ecology ranked the site as one of the most polluted in the state, noting it posed a high risk to human and environmental health.

At a public hearing Sept. 12, Steve Rimmer, the owner of the Mill Site, said he intends for the development to promote the history of the mill and that his party will ensure all pollution cleanup will be handled.

“The development will ensure any cleanup that is deemed necessary will be addressed,” he told the city council. “We look forward, as we have done today, to respecting the process.”

Rimmer has stated his intent, on multiple occasions, to fully clean the site. The amount of effort, time and money required to fully clean and perform ongoing maintenance on the site is currently unknown, said Scarlet Tang, a spokesperson for the Department of Ecology.

“Since the site is still early in the cleanup process, we don’t have a solid estimate of how much time and money will be needed for the cleanup,” she wrote in an email. “There still needs to be more work done to determine the exact extent of contamination before the cleanup remedy can be selected.”

The site remains on the state’s list of cleanup sites, Tang said, and will need to meet requirements set by the state’s Model Toxics Control Act. However, she said, there are no requirements that a site must reach a specific stage in the cleanup process to apply for construction permits.

The Mill Site became contaminated by environmentally poor practices during its more than a century as an active lumber mill. The Mill was owned and operated by Weyerhaeuser until operations shuttered in 1989, with the first known contamination being discovered a short time later.

Rimmer, of Sammamish, purchased the property in 2010. Two years later, the city annexed the property and entered into a pre-annexation agreement with Rimmer and Mill Ventures. Currently, Rimmer operates DirtFish, a rally car driving school, on the Mill Site property.

This past summer, the development’s Environmental Impact Statement survived an administrative challenge by the Snoqualmie Community Action Network (SCAN), a small grassroots organization of Valley residents that raised concerns about traffic impacts and water contamination. An independent hearing examiner ruled the impact statement was legally adequate.

Economic impact

Tom Sroufe, an advisor to Rimmer, said during a Sept. 12 presentation that the Mill Site development is the preferred alternative to leaving the space empty. Without private funding, he said, the site might not receive needed environmental cleanup.

According to Sroufe, the first phase of development alone is expected to deliver an additional $2 million a year in gross revenue to the city through a variety of taxes. At full buildout, it would deliver around $5 million annually, he said.

Sroufe also highlighted other benefits of the development agreement, including requirements that 64% of the site will be left as open space to be used for recreation, wildlife habitat and flood storage.

The first phase of development is also expected to bring 160 apartments, a portion of which will be sold at 80% area median income for at least 50 years. According to 2021 numbers from King County, 80% of the area median income is nearly $65,000 for an individual and $74,000 for a couple.

Exactly what portion of units will be income-restricted has yet to be determined, but Sroufe said they had proposed 15%.

Kelly Coughlin, CEO of the SnoValley Chamber of Commerce, said at the hearing that the chamber and majority of businesses are in support of the project. She said they are hopeful the site can help bring more tourists and traffic to existing businesses.

Coughlin also praised Rimmer’s reputation in the community, noting that DirtFish, his racing school, supports many nonprofits and businesses.

“Our small businesses need this. Our large businesses need this,” she said. “This site is absolutely a better alternative than reducing revenue for the city and city services.”

Cleaning it up

The proposal Rimmer and Mill Ventures submitted to the city breaks the 20-year development into three separate phases.

All of the Mill Site’s known, or suspected, contamination is concentrated in the second and third phases, and would require cleanup before proceeding. Development of the first phase, however, can proceed immediately without need for cleanup.

In a Sept. 12 letter addressing the project’s development agreement, Snoqualmie Tribal Chairman Robert de los Angeles wrote that this phased approach takes a shortsighted look at the site and asked that the city’s development agreement set stricter requirements regarding cleanup.

De los Angeles asked that the city include language in its agreement directly stipulating Mill Ventures is responsible for cleaning the entire site, including setting a cleanup timeline, before being allowed to develop in phase 1.

He argues that carving out the site’s only uncontaminated portion for quick development will push development too close to the river. He said it neglects to analyze which portions of the site would function best against climate change driven flood hazards. A responsible approach, he wrote, would be to clean the whole site, then assess which portions are best for development.

“Private industry is responsible for isolating and contaminating the Snoqualmie River floodplain at the Snoqualmie Mill site, to the great detriment of all residents of the Snoqualmie Valley, and beyond,” he wrote. “Private industry should similarly lead the cleanup of this contamination, as [Mill Ventures] is poised, but apparently reluctant or unwilling, to do.”

The Mill Site property is on the tribe’s ancestral lands and is in close proximity to the Snoqualmie River and upstream of Snoqualmie Falls. The falls are culturally sacred to the Snoqualmie Tribe and home to the Salish Lodge and Spa, which the tribe owns.

In the letter, de los Angeles wrote the project raises “acute concerns” about the integrity and preservation of the falls. He notes the tribe has opposed development near the falls for at least the last three decades, but wrote the tribe’s concerns “continue to be ignored or prejudicially dismissed.”

Similar concerns about phasing were shared by Jim Chan, the director of permitting for the King County Department of Local Services. In a letter to the city last winter, Chan wrote it was “apparent the proponent has sliced off the immediately profitable and developable planning area as planning area 1,” while work in other areas “could cease and never be addressed.”

In an email, a city spokesperson said they are unable to comment on how the city council will respond to concerns raised by the Tribe, due to the quasi-judicial nature of the proceeding.

However, Mayor Katherine Ross said, through a spokesperson, that the city takes the Tribe’s concerns “very seriously.” She said they recognize the Tribe’s important role in the Valley and value their partnership.

“The City worked hard to ensure that the Draft and Final Environmental Impact Statements were based on a well-prepared Cultural Resources Assessment, that the EIS discussed the importance to the Tribe of the area around Snoqualmie Falls and the Falls Traditional Cultural Property and that the Final EIS responded directly to the Tribe’s comments,” she said.

A representative for Mill Ventures said they are not able to comment at this time, but were in the process of drafting written responses to all comments, including the Tribe’s letter.