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Neighbors raise concerns about ‘rustic’ church camp
Morningside Farm is a quiet, park-like expanse on the south end of Vashon, surrounded by a white split-rail fence and dotted by towering firs. On a recent rainy day, hardly a soul was there, save for a couple of men driving tractors to repair potholes in the gravel road leading up to it.
But a recent decision by King County to give owners of the 100-acre spread — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) — a green light to develop the former Morgan horse farm into a youth camp is triggering concerns among neighbors, who question the county’s process as well as aspects of the church’s plan.
The neighbors, many of whom are members of the Sunny Slopes Mutual Water Association, a 40-household water cooperative perched above Tahlequah, recently took issue with the way the county’s Department of Permitting and Environmental Review (DPER) issued two decisions.
Just before Thanksgiving, the county agency said the development met state environmental requirements and did not trigger a full Environmental Impact Statement; it also issued a conditional use permit, required for any project that abuts the waterfront, as does this one.
Last week, the county rescinded its conditional use permit after neighbors, working with Vashon activist Amy Carey, argued that the agency couldn’t issue both decisions concurrently. Jim Chan, assistant director of permitting at DPER, said it turned out the Islanders were right.
“We’ve done that for 21 years. We’ve never been challenged on this before,” he said.
Residents now have until Dec. 21 — what amounts to a 14-day comment period — to respond to the county’s decision that the project passes environmental muster. After reviewing any comments it receives, the county will reissue the use permit, possibly amending it to address concerns, Chan said. Residents will then have three weeks to respond to its decision on the use permit.
LDS first filed its plans for a camp at Morningside Farm in 2003, keeping its permit active over the course of nine years of county review. A 14-day comment period is what the law requires in a situation like this, Chan said.
But some residents are frustrated by the county’s decision, saying 14 days are not nearly enough in light of what they see as significant changes in the project — changes they heard nothing about until they received notice of the county’s approval the day before Thanksgiving. Last week, one member in the water association put up a new website, called stopmorningsidefarm.com, drawing attention to Sunny Slope’s concerns.
Jay Williamson, president of the water association, said he fears some aspects of the project could have an impact on both the quality and quantity of the water that serves their neighborhood, a community that’s had to work hard to secure decent water. He recently went to the county’s permitting office in Snoqualmie and spent five hours poring over documents.
“We were just totally caught off-guard,” he said of the county’s decision.
“Nothing has happened in over a decade, and suddenly the county issues a determination of non-significance and a conditional use permit … without giving the public any ability to comment on it,” he added.
Bob Sargent, a member of the Tahlequah Water System, another water association near the project, expressed similar frustrations.
“The church has had nine years. And the county’s given us two weeks to look at all the information and respond. That’s not right,” he said.
“Maybe we’d get through this whole process and find out it’s fine,” he added. “We just don’t know.”
At issue is the Mormon church’s plan to build what it’s calling a “rustic camp” for teen girls on the 100-acre spread near Tahlequah, land donated to the church in 1997. Initially, the church planned to construct a camp with a much larger footprint, including cabins, an amphitheater and some sports fields, said Jonathan Katz, recreational properties director for the Mormon church in Washington state. The church has since reduced the scope of its project, in part to get over various county and state hurdles, Katz said.
What’s now in the works, Katz said, is far more modest — the camp would use existing structures on the site, adding only platforms for tents and a bathhouse with showers. At most, there would be 234 people on the site — though most often, he said, the camp would host between 130 to 150 teens and staff and only during the summer.
Katz expressed frustration at news that residents were concerned about the church’s plans and what they saw as inadequate time to respond.
“I’m overwhelmed by all this negativity,” he said.
The church, he said, has spent $750,000 on studies in its effort to secure approval from the county. “I was so excited when I heard we’d get our conditional use permit by Thanksgiving,” he said.
Now, he said, he feels deeply discouraged. “I don’t understand why anyone would be against this. … We’re not some corporation looking at stripping the land and its natural resources. That’s never been our intention. Our intention is to be a contributing member of the community.”
But Williamson and Sargent say the proposal has changed in at least one significant way since it was first put forward nine years ago. Now, the camp — which lies in the shadow of the plume that the Asarco Copper Smelter emitted for decades — is undertaking a voluntary cleanup plan to remove soil that could have been affected by the plume. The arsenic-laced soil, under an approach tentatively approved by the state Department of Ecology, would be stored in what’s called a “containment cell,” a corner of the property not far from Sunny Slope’s well.
Katz said he doesn’t understand the upset. “The soil that we’d be removing is the same soil they have on their land. … Everybody’s land there is contaminated. What we’re doing is cleaning it up.”
What’s more, the church has stepped forward voluntarily, Katz said, offering to store the soil in an engineered cell that would protect the wells at Morningside Farm as well as the surrounding area. “We want to make it safe for kids. That’s the bottom line,” he said.
Roger Nye, a hydrogeologist in the Department of Ecology’s toxics cleanup program, said the department has looked at the church’s plans and “affirmed their general approach.”
He said he understands the neighbors’ fear of groundwater contamination. “That’s an obvious question,” he said. But as long as the containment cell is engineered well, he believes everyone’s wells will be fine.
“They can’t just dump it in a hole. It’s got to be engineered and contained, top and bottom,” he said.
The Ecology Department will sign off on the cleanup plan, he added, only if it’s assured that the engineering is solid. “It has to be really contained,” he said.
But Williamson and Sargent note that the contaminated soil would be stored on a corner of the property where the former owner, Rick Young, tried to build a pond and couldn’t; the water always leaked out, even when Young lined the pond with clay. With more time, Williamson said, the water association could hire its own hydrologist and study the situation.
What’s more, he noted, the county has given the project a green light before the containment cell has even been designed and approved.
“None of this was in their original plan,” he added. “It’s causing us a lot of concern.”
Neighbors are also worried about the impact the project could have on water availability, another issue homeowners have struggled with over the years.
The church plans to pump 5,000 gallons a day from its three exempt wells until it fills a 424,000-gallon tank it will erect on its property. The church will also have to use vast quantities of water in the process of removing contaminated soil from its site; water is often used to keep dust to a minimum during construction projects, a particularly critical issue, they said, when dealing with arsenic-laced dirt.
Sunny Slopes Water Association recently took out a $330,000 loan to improve its system, saddling its members with high water bills for years to come in an effort to ensure their water was clean and plentiful, Williamson said.
“We want to protect our water right,” he said.
Doug Wood, a hydrologist with the Department of Ecology who oversees Vashon, said the church’s approach — storing water over the course of the year so it can get through six to eight weeks of high water-use — is an unusual one, an approach it took so it could avoid the contentious issue of securing an actual water right, he said. In a letter he wrote in 2005 to a state health official, he voiced concern about the plan.
“The proposed 5,000 gallons per day pumping rate has the potential to impair existing water rights in the area,” he said in the letter, adding, “withdrawal in an area of limited recharge may have negative impacts on the environment.”
Since then, he’s required the church to add metering devices so that he can ensure that it doesn’t go over that 5,000-gallon limit. In an interview Monday, he said the church’s approach is legal, and as long as dozens of property owners in the area don’t do the exact same thing, water quantity will likely not be affected.
“Anytime you’re dealing with an island, you’re going to have issues with water supply. But I don’t think we’re crossing any thresholds here,” Wood said.
Katz, for his part, is frustrated by the neighbors’ concerns over the church’s water storage plans, noting that a lot more water would likely be used if the church subdivided the lots and sold them to individual homeowners.
What’s more, he said, the use of a large tank means water will be available if needed for fire-fighting.
“If there were a fire, we’d give everything we had to help fight it. We help our neighbors. That’s what we’re taught, and that’s what we do,” he said.
Noting the level of concern, Katz said he couldn’t help but wonder if prejudice towards Mormons was driving the opposition.
“We’re not here to fight a war. We’re here to help people,” he said.
But Williamson said neither he nor any of the other neighbors who have talked to him about the issue have expressed a shred of bias based on the property owners’ religion.
“It doesn’t matter who’s proposing this. It could be the Camp Fire Girls — we’d be raising the same questions,” he said.
“We don’t have an objection to a camp being there that’s reasonably sized,” he added. “But we don’t want to jeopardize our community drinking water, and we don’t want a landfill of contaminated soil stored in our neighborhood.”
County officials, meanwhile, say neighbors have until Dec. 21 to register their concerns. If, after that, they remain unhappy with the county’s decision, they still have another option — they can file an appeal with the King County Hearing Examiner.
“I suspect a third party will make the final call,” said Chris Ricketts, a building and permitting official at DPER.
Comments about Morningside Farm can be made to Mark Mitchell at the Department of Permitting and Environmental Review. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to him at DEPR, 35030 S.E. Douglas St., Suite 210, Snoqualmie, 98065-9266.