A zoning request by the Bethel School District regarding its newly acquired acreage along 224th St, and submitted to the Graham Land Use Advisory Commission (LUAC) at its May meeting, has ignited a wave of protests from neighbors and land use advocates.
The controversy surrounds 117 acres stretching in a crescent from 70th Ave on the west to 224th St in the north – much of it known as the Crate property. The petition by BSD to the G-LUAC was just the first step in changing the zoning, with further review coming from the Pierce County Planning Commission and the Pierce County Council.
Bethel would like the zoning switched from a “Rural Farm” designation to Rural-10. The change would expand the authorized uses of the land, from a strict agricultural designation to one allowing the building of homes – or in Bethel’s case, schools.
Cathie Carlson and Jim Hansen, members of Bethel’s construction administration, told the LUAC that the district intends to “land bank” the property for at least 10-15 years and then build a high school, and possibly a junior high.
On the surface, the request does not seem to be overly contentious, but when the LUAC began digging into the details the problems emerged.
To begin, Bethel does not own all of the 117 acres, yet, only approximately 80 acres, with the remaining lands still being owned by the Rainier View Christian Church (RVCC).
As a result, RVCC is a co-petitioner with BSD in the re-designation.
RVCC’s ownership of this latter 40 acres, coupled with a wetlands issue and a prior zoning change that allowed the church to build homes, is making the sale to Bethel and the re-designation to R-10 a difficult matter to understand.
After talking with many of the principals involved, here is what the Mountain News has learned.
To begin, the RVCC bought 80 acres in 2001. The RVCC wanted to build its church on 17 acres along 224th St and develop the much of the remaining property as residential houses, which it could then sell and raise the money necessary to build the church building.
However, the RVCC’s property, along with the lands now owned by the BSD, is sprinkled with little ponds.
In addition, a sizeable wetland exists in the southeast corner, which is in fact, the head waters of Muck Creek and comprises about 10% of the property still owned by the RVCC.
These southeast corner wetlands have a “critical resource” designation, and the RVCC originally proposed to the county a “Planned Development District” (PDD) for its entire 80 acres. In essence, the church promised extra wetlands buffers and lots of wide-open spaces in exchange for a permit to build its church and ten houses, a deal the county approved.
However, before construction began on any buildings, Bethel offered to buy the westernmost 40 acres, which the RVCC agreed. Combined with the Crate property, this transaction then gave Bethel about 80 acres.
Flush with cash, the RVCC was now able to build its church and did not need to build any homes. In turn, Bethel offered to buy the unused lands that had been slated for the homes, which brings the matter to its current proposal status.
Cathie Carlson, Bethel’s head Planning and Facilities official on this project, told the Mountain News that the current plan, assuming the re-zoning goes through, is for BSD to purchase 15 of the 40 acres still owned by the RVCC, with the church retaining 8 acres along with the 17 it is using presently. That will give Bethel a total of 95 combined acres and the RVCC will own 25.
But the PDD is still controlling the land use designation.
“The PDD is binding,” said Bud Rehberg, the former chairman of the Graham LUAC, and an individual who was involved in the crafting of the PDD several years ago. “The PDD can only be changed by re-applying to the Hearing Examiner and holding public hearings.”
“We started to file the paperwork to reverse the PDD, but we were told to seek the Rural Farm – R-10 re-designation, first,” Ms. Carlson told the Mountain News in later comments.
This issue was hotly discussed at the Graham LUAC meeting, with several land use activists speaking in opposition. At the heart of the matter is the community’s fear of losing open space and wetlands.
In addition, many questioned why Bethel plans to build a third high school on 224th St, as Bethel High is 40 blocks west on 224th, and Graham-Kapowsin is a few miles to the east.
“Your next high school should be up in Spanaway or Frederickson – that’s where residential development is slated to take place,” argued Jim Halmo. “Why build it here in Graham?”
Current development plans, as specified in the Graham Community Plan, (GCP) support Mr. Halmo’s contention. The GCP calls for very limited development – the R-10 designation being the most widespread – which allows only one residence per 10 acres; whereas lands north of the Urban Growth Boundary, generally the 204th-208th Sts corridor through Spanaway and Frederickson, is designed by the county to receive heavy residential development.
Further, Ms. Carlson acknowledged that Bethel High School is not currently at capacity, casting doubt on the need to buy land in the southern portion of the district..
Speaking for those in Graham who do not want to lose open space or agricultural landscapes to either housing developments or schools, George Wearn championed for a more public process.
“Look at the PDD – that issue has not been resolved,” said Mr. Wearn. “How can you make a statement on the Rural Farm designation?”
Later he charged: “This is looking like a secret land deal – an end-run around the system – and it is very disturbing.”
However, the real fireworks started when some of the neighbors began speaking, charging BSD with illegal bulldozing designed to fill the wetlands in the westernmost areas.
“I’ve been observing two to four feet of fill being moved in from some high areas on the land into the wetlands,” said BV Ahlers, who said he lived directly adjacent to the BSD property.
“The wetlands are now muddy lowlands,” Ahlers continued, saying that the water fowl accustomed to using the water spots now had no place to land and feed.
“Bethel needs to make restitution,” Ahlers declared.
Others are not only concerned about a loss of natural habitat, but the further prospect of flooding to neighboring homes once a school is built.
“When I bought my home here twenty years ago I knew all about the wetlands designations,” neighbor Bill Goodnight said after the meeting. “There’s a lot of water around here.”
“Yeah,” added Ahlers, “where’s all that water going to go if the open space is covered over with buildings and parking lots?”
“This is a crock,” Goodnight announced, almost too angry to speak. “Bethel’s got these guys,” referring to the LUAC vote that supported the BSD-RVCC petition.
“Well, I’m not going to go down without a fight,” declared Mr. Ahlers.
Another neighbor, an older woman named Rosemary Henderson, seemed comfortable allowing the future to take care of itself.
“You’re not going to build any schools for at least ten years?” she asked the Bethel officials during the public portion of the meeting.
“Not for at least ten,” replied Carlson. “Probably not even for fifteen.”
“Okay, then,” responded Ms. Henderson.
On a later tour of the controversial wetlands, Ms. Carlson acknowledged that the district had done some bulldozing work in the area, specifically doing work in small pond-like wet spots she said needed improved drainage and contouring.
“We hired a wetlands biologist from Habitat Technologies to develop a Pasture Management Plan,” Ms. Carlson said, adding that all the bulldozing work was done under the guidelines developed by the wetlands biologist, Tom Deming, in conjunction with another official from the Pierce Conservation District, who made an on-site inspection.
“We restored the pasture’s contours to allow drainage in a historical fashion,” Ms. Carlson said. “We even talked to local farmers and asked them what we should do here.”
She said that the bulldozing work involved breaking up hard pan and connecting wet spots isolated by hilly land swales.
At no time did any of the bulldozing involve the Muck Creek headwaters area, Carlson said.
Currently, BSD leases part of the pasture to a local cattle rancher, and hay from the remaining lands will be mowed by local farmer Don Mc Niven to minimize the fire hazard.
Nevertheless, a formal complaint has been filed with the county. Mary Van Haren, Environmental Biologist with the code enforcement division of the Planning and Land Services confirmed that her department has received a complaint of “bulldozing, clearing and filling wetlands.”
Ms. Van Haren told the Mountain news that she is reviewing the case.
Ms Van Haren contacted the Mountain News on June 1 to say that Planning and Land Services Department staff will be meeting with the Bethel School District this week to discuss the issues on the site and options for resolution.
2 nd Update
On June 2nd, Ms. Van Haren sent us the following email: “(We) met with the School District. PALS staff believes that work has been conducted in a potential wetland. We have requested that a complete and detailed wetland delineation and mitigation plan be prepared and submitted for approval by Pierce County. A delineation report and our review will provide recommendations for resolution or mitigation accordingly.”
© 2011 The Mountain News – WA
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