Weyerhaeuser mill site lacks long range plan

Guest Columnist, Part three

  • Friday, October 3, 2008 2:53am
  • Opinion

Would the Weyerhaeuser Timber Co. of 1916 have had any interest in acquiring the mill site today? I doubt it. In fact I doubt if this location would have even gotten on their “Top 100” list. The reason: An apparent lack of any community-wide long-range business plan for new heavy manufacturing on the mill site, backed up by a proactive welcoming commitment by the present-day community. No business such as Weyerhaeuser is going to invest heavily in a community that apparently has an obvious mistrust of a company’s intent. Conversely, no community today can be expected to welcome any business that seems to have had a bent on ignoring community values and environmental standards over the years.

Weyerhaeuser has been recognized nationally for its outstanding stewardship of its timberlands, its state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities and employee support. However, Weyerhaeuser, for all the good it has done within the upper Valley over it’s long and illustrious history, needs to acknowledge a lack of candor regarding contemporary mill site environmental issues. By the same token, it would be wise for members within the community to rethink their misguided tactic of laying all the upper Valley’s environmental ills at Weyerhaeuser’s feet. We need to be able to talk about these issues openly, without playing the blame game.

The location of the Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company became a priority acquisition for the Weyerhaeuser Timber Co. in 1916 because (1), it was in the vortex of two transcontinental railroads (Northern Pacific RR and Milwaukee RR); and (2), it was in an area abundant with raw materials, and (3), it was compatible with Weyerhaeuser’s long-range business plan.

It is no coincidence that the successful timber companies of the early 1900s had a close business relationship with the nation’s railroad industry. Their relationship wasn’t conspiratorial as much as it was cooperative. Engineering the thousands of miles of rights of way and laying track took years of hard labor and large capital. Building lumber mills in the right location required a clear look into the future, large capital and the capacity to develop a stable wor k force. The railroads, timber companies and the communities where they built businesses needed each other to make it work. They required a predictable working environment necessary for its long-term investments.

Today, we still need each other to make anything of value succeed in this community. The Snoqualmie Valley, one of the most vibrant communities in the region, cannot afford to let such a major economic asset like the mill site remain idle. An enormous amount of hard work and persistent stewardship has properly vetted this large tract into a heavy industrial zone. What we need today is to reinvigorate ourselves with the old time welcoming spirit and let folks know that the City of Snoqualmie is open for business. We have a broadly based multi-generational workforce of intelligent, innovative and productive people who are eager to go to work in the upper Snoqualmie Valley.

Is it Required to Annex the Weyerhaeuser mill site into the City of Snoqualmie? The answer rests squarely on the types of businesses that can be attracted to Snoqualmie. There is a piece of regulatory history that needs to be shared in order to understand the annexation issue. I was in the middle of it as land usemanager for Weyerhaeuser’s Snoqualmie operations. This is a little long, but the outcome has a point.

In 1964, King County established a zoning overlay to guide the growth and density patterns in the urban and suburban areas. Not wanting to over simplify things, let’s just say the rural and forested areas in eastern King County were broadly zoned to keep incompatible uses apart and encouraged toleration between neighbors. This zoning plan was acceptable, with periodic revisions and tweaking during the ensuing 20 years.

In the early 1970s, two critical environmental state-wide laws were enacted: (1), the Shorelines Management Act in 1972 and (2), the Forest Practices Act in 1974. The state authorized each county to be the regulatory authority for shorelines of the state within their jurisdiction. The state retained the sole authority unto itself to regulate forest practices, eccepting for proposed conversion of forestland into another higher and better use, such as housing or commercial.

In 1984, the King County Executive, Randy Revelle proposed a sweeping revision to the 1964 Zoning Code, which mapped clearly defined districts based upon population densities and imposed stricter controls upon land uses in the rural and commercial forestlands. Weyerhaeuser found itself under the same heavy handed regulatory boat with everyone else. When the county executive accepted the recommendations of his appointed Citizens Advisory Committee (which included a Weyerhaeuser timberlands manager,) the newly established forest zone line isolated a strip of several thousand acres of intensively managed commercial forestland along a North-South axis into the newly established rural zone. Inexplicably, the mill site was gerrymandered into the forest zone designation, even though it was surrounded by rural and urban uses.

Those segments of Weyerhaeuser’s forestland that fell into the rural zone meant that the company be limited in the intensity of their management practices over time. The “grandfathering” of the mill site into the forest zone put their facilities at risk over the long term because such large integrated manufacturing uses out of scale and not permitted in the forest zone. In the instance of a catastrophic fire, Weyerhaeuser would not have been able to rebuild on site. We learned along the way that it was a long-range objective of the county to force the relocation of all heavy manufacturing business into the urban core areas around Puget Sound through down zoning and attrition. Weyerhaeuser had been a part of the community far too long to tolerate that.

The 1984 Comprehensive Plan divided the county into 12 community planning areas. The entire Snoqualmie Valley, from Duvall to North Bend, became the first planning area under which a Citizen’s Advisory Committee (CAC), comprised of local citizens appointed by the county executive, would review the proposed Comprehensive Plan for the Snoqualmie Valley and offer revisions to fit the circumstances, goals and future objectives of the people living there.

This dedicated committee of 17-21 folks met monthly over a four-year period with very little attrition. When it came to the mill site, to the CAC gave it a super-majority vote in favor of protecting the long-term. They recommended the site be designated as an industrial zone.

The vote of the CAC favoring the industrial zone for the mill site affirmed in the strongest of terms that the definition of “rural character” had to include the presence of an integrated industrial base and the ongoing harvest and management of local natural resources.

A key individual on the CAC in support of retaining the permanent viability of the mill site was Development Director for the City of Snoqualmie Leroy Gmazel. Gmazel knew from his experience and the professional working relationships he had with the local Weyerhaeuser folks that companies would vigorously resist any attempts by the city to annex the mill site. All during the CAC process, Weyerhaeuser was able to keep the mill site from being designated as an urban expansion area. Many people predicted that when the urban expansion area issue came up for a vote by the King County Council, it would fail along party lines 5-4.

Gmazel is credited with presenting a compromise of enormous significance. The City of Snoqualmie would acknowledge and agree to Weyerhaeuser’s historic preference at remaining outside of the city limits, so long as the exclusive manufacturing activities on the mill site remain the storage and conversion of forest products into consumer goods. This provision was irrespective of ownership.

However, if Weyerhaeuser or its successors or assigns wish to add non-forest product manufacturing

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