Council allows Issaquah Highlands gas station despite concerns
October 11, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
Opponents raise questions about groundwater contamination
City Council members, eager to attract more retail options to the Issaquah Highlands, decided a gas station can open in the neighborhood, but only if groceries accompany the fill-ups.
The council agreed in a 7-0 decision Oct. 3 to change the agreement between the city and highlands developer Port Blakely Communities to allow a gas station in the community. Concerns about possible groundwater contamination led city officials to ban gas stations in the highlands before construction on the neighborhood started in the mid-1990s.
Safeway outlined plans for a gas station to accompany a proposed highlands store, and city officials and gas station proponents said the rule change is a crucial step to attract the grocery chain. The gas station is proposed for a funnel-shaped lot between Ninth Avenue Northeast and Highlands Drive Northeast, next to a future Safeway.
The debate before the council decision exposed a split among highlands residents eager for more amenities in the community, and residents from elsewhere concerned about potential groundwater contamination from gas station leaks.
Supporters said advances in safety measures and additional data about highlands geology minimize contamination concerns. Opponents said safety measures could fail and the data is incomplete.
Councilman Tola Marts said the decision to allow a gas station offered a chance to land a grocery store for the neighborhood.
“I saw a number of instances where Port Blakely and other businesses that they worked with got very close to getting a grocery store, and it always slipped through our fingers,” he said. “I believe that had it been possible for them to get a grocery store in the last two years without a gas station, they would have done so.”
John Shaw, consulting director of operations for Port Blakely, said Safeway considers a gas station as a basic — and non-negotiable — feature for a highlands store.
Councilwoman Stacy Goodman, a highlands resident, amended the measure to limit a gas station to open only as part of a grocery store.
“I’m not thrilled with a fuel station,” she said before the council decision. “I know a fuel station was not envisioned as part of the Issaquah Highlands urban village, but Issaquah Highlands needs a grocery store. That land up there has been vacant for way too long.”
Geology ‘is a lot more complicated’
The agreement between the city and Port Blakely fills a 4-inch binder. The thick document outlines rules for the highlands and, until the council decision, banned a gas station in the neighborhood.
The original pact between city officials and Port Blakely executives prohibited a gas station due to concerns about contamination to the Lower Issaquah Valley Aquifer, a major drinking water source. (The city purchases water for highlands residents from the Cascade Water Alliance.)
“That was back in 1995, and what we know today is that the geology in Issaquah Highlands, underneath the surface of Issaquah Highlands, is a lot more complicated than what was described in the environmental documents that were produced for that project,” Keith Niven, city Major Development Review Team program manager, told council members.
The changes in understanding — and updated safety features for underground tanks — prompted officials to rethink the ban.
Officials learned more about highlands geology from a 2004 landslide. Before the landslide, storm water from the highlands entered the ground near the current Swedish/Issaquah hospital campus. Geologists said the site acted as a sort of pipe down to the aquifer.
However, geologists and municipal officials later realized aquatards — impermeable soil layers — caused some storm water to flow horizontally out of the highlands, too, and contributed to the landslide.
Safeway offers safety reassurances
Some gas station opponents said that regardless, such a facility in the highlands poses a risk for groundwater contamination.
“This is a complex geology up there,” Cougar Mountain resident Mary Lynch said. “We know that. We’ve had problems with storm water runoff. We still don’t know what caused some of those in the past. We still don’t understand all of our wells.”
Jeff Parker, a Safeway real estate manager, said no major spills have occurred at the company’s gas stations. Safeway uses double-walled tanks nestled inside fiberglass cladding, he said. Tanks also include sensors to monitor for leaks.
“These tanks are considered the safest tanks available,” Parker told council members. “Our system monitors those tanks 24/7/365, and gives notification onsite and to our Safeway maintenance department, and is able to provide a quick response.”
Some gas station proponents turned around the environment-related argument on detractors.
“A gas station will reduce air pollution and reduce congestion by eliminating the need for people heading to the highlands to swing off the freeway, go through downtown Issaquah, get gas here and go on up,” Bill Frisinger, Mayor Ava Frisinger’s husband, said at the hearing. “Congestion is a problem and anything that can reduce that ought to be given serious consideration.”
(The mayor only casts a vote on council decisions in order to break a tie.)
The council amended the development agreement in the past to open land for additional development and, in October 2009, to allow Swedish Medical Center to install underground fuel tanks for emergency generators, despite similar concerns about groundwater contamination. (Swedish/Issaquah opened in July.)
The council considered gas station legislation in December 2009, but Port Blakely executives pulled the bill at the last minute. The earlier proposal — billed as legislation for a high-tech “energy station” — differed from the recent legislation, although officials said a highlands gas station could offer ethanol or electric-vehicle charging stations.
The discussion denoted the latest clash in a long and contentious debate about development in the highlands.
Chris Hawkins, a highlands resident, leveled blunt remarks against people opposed to the gas station.
“You are just inexorably against any kind of progress up in the highlands, whether it’s a shopping center, Microsoft, I mean, you are just against it,” he said. “You lost some sort of political battle back in the mid-’90s and you have been holding development up there hostage ever since.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.