Vision for Issaquah Highlands will be focus as council debates gas station
December 15, 2009
By Warren Kagarise
UPDATED — 9:15 a.m. Dec. 15, 2009
A proposal to allow a gas station in the Issaquah Highlands has become the latest flashpoint in the ongoing debate about how development in the hillside community measures up to the vision offered by the developer and the city.
The dispute centers on a revision to the development agreement between the city and highlands developer Port Blakely Communities to allow a gas station to be constructed in the community. Supporters said highlands residents want a gas station for convenience and safety, when severe weather occurs and residents need fuel. Detractors argued a gas station would be a poor fit for a community billed as “green” and pedestrian-friendly.
The amendment would overhaul the development pact between and the city and Port Blakely to allow gas stations in the decade-old community. The revision includes tight language to limit what developers and operators could do with the property.
Besides gasoline, the operator would be required to offer at least one alternative fuel and three electric-vehicle charging stations. The agreement also requires the building to meet for eco-friendly building standards and utilize photovoltaic panels or wind turbines to generate at least some energy for the facility. The features are part of the “energy station” concept advanced by Port Blakely executives.
Other stipulations in the amendment are less lofty: If the gas station includes a convenience store, the agreement requires the store to close at 10 p.m. The revision also requires a full-time attendant to be present to clean up spills.
The full City Council will weigh the proposed amendment Dec. 21. Council Land Use Committee members sent the amendment to full council after more than seven months, several committee meetings and multiple revisions.
“I am disappointed in the loss of the original vision of the highlands,” Councilman John Traeger said as the Land Use Committee forwarded the proposal to the full council.
Surveys: Residents want gas station
Traeger and other Land Use Committee members heard concerns from both camps during the tense Dec. 8 committee meeting.
Port Blakely President Alan Boeker said town hall meetings with and surveys showed residents support a gas station in the highlands. He described the amendment proposal as a resident-driven request.
Regardless, gas station opponents urged the Land Use Committee to scuttle the proposal.
“I haven’t heard anybody make a compelling argument that a gas station needs to be up there,” former Councilman Hank Thomas said.
Issaquah residents sacrificed mountain views and environmental quality when officials approved the highlands, citizen activist Connie Marsh said. Despite assurances to promote mass transit and sidewalks, the highlands turned out as a car-centric community, she added.
“This was a contract not just with the highlands, but with the entire city,” Marsh said.
Thomas asked Port Blakely executives what city residents would receive in return for the revision to the development agreement.
Chris Hysom, the Port Blakely legal and community affairs director, said the company would be willing to contribute toward a mountain bike skills course requested by highlands residents.
Sue Bueing, a highlands resident, said she surveyed fellow residents at a coffee shop, a restaurant and door-to-door in the community. Bueing said the results showed overwhelming support for a gas station.
Bueing said she surveyed 280 people — 219 people who supported a gas station in the highlands, 26 opposed and 35 respondents who did not care about the proposal.
Port Blakely surveyed about 300 highlands residents during the spring; about 70 percent indicated a preference for a gas station in the community. About 7,000 people live in the highlands.
Bueing and other gas station supporters said highlands residents must drive too far to fill up, but Council President Maureen McCarry said the distance was typical for Issaquah residents. Most highlands residents live about 2.5 miles from the nearest gas station.
“Everybody drives to get gas,” McCarry said. “Nobody wants a gas station right next to them.”
Contamination worries prompted ban
Concerns about potential contamination of the Lower Issaquah Valley Aquifer — a source of drinking water for the city — led officials to ban underground fuel tanks and prohibit the construction of gas stations in the highlands when the city and the developer formalized the development agreement in 1995.
But subsequent technological advances and a new understanding about geology beneath the highlands prompted officials to rethink the agreement when Port Blakely executives asked for the revision.
Officials learned a messy lesson during a 2004 landslide, when about 20,000 cubic yards of rock and soil slid downhill from the mouth of Camp Creek above the Sunset Way interchange and filled retention ponds near the site with sediment. The landslide also damaged storm water pipes and discharged turbid water into the east and north forks of Issaquah Creek.
Before the landslide, storm water from the highlands was infiltrated into the ground near the present-day Swedish Medical Center site. Geologists and city officials believed the site acted almost like a geologic pipe to the aquifer. But aquatards — thin, impermeable soil layers — caused infiltrated storm water to flow horizontally out of the highlands, instead of vertically into the aquifer. The resulting landslide reshaped the way officials approached highlands geology.
The gas station amendment could also receive a boost from action the City Council took in October, when officials bent the rules for Swedish Medical Center. Hospital executives asked to include underground fuel oil and propane tanks — meant to hold fuel for emergency generators — at a medical center under construction in the highlands. The council allowed the arrangement, but limited the underground tank rule to hospitals.
The gas station amendment requires runoff from the filling area to drain into an oil-water separator, where the water will be treated and then discharged into the sanitary sewer. Technological advances, such as double-walled tanks and sensors to monitor leaks, would be incorporated into the gas station as well.