County tells park district to stop work at sports field project

King County officials have ordered the Vashon Park District to temporarily halt its work on its ambitious sports fields project north of town because the park district appears to have cleared land beyond the limits of its permit.

After issuing the stop-work order, however, county officials last week found what appears to be a bigger problem: The county, according to John Starbard, director of the county’s Department of Development and Environmental Services, does not have an approved set of plans for the $1.3 million project from the park district, meaning that the project has not gone through much of the extensive review required under county rules.

Starbard, however, said it may not be the park district’s fault. The park district, he said, had a signed permit as well as a verbal go-ahead from a DDES official. How it is that the district received the green light without going through the standard review process is unclear at this point, he said.

“There was a clearing and grading permit that has been issued for this site. That was issued on Sept. 23, 2010. And the permit clearly says that work shall be limited to that on the approved plans. Well, it appears that we don’t have approved plans,” Starbard said.

“I believe the park district was operating according to what it thought was correct,” he added. “Our struggle is that because the process of this application differed from what our department typically does, we need to understand why and make sure the park district stops its activity until we complete the necessary public process steps that need to occur for this project.” 

But David Hackett, a park district commissioner and one of the leading champions of the fields project, took issue with Starbard’s comments. “He’s just flat-out wrong,” Hackett said. “The plans were submitted to DDES.”

“The problem is internal to DDES,” Hackett added. “The park district is not at all at fault.”

Park district and DDES officials plan to meet on Friday to see if they can resolve the situation. Hackett says that much is at stake. Should the park district be forced to go through a lengthy review process at this point, it might not be able to complete the project by the end of the summer and could lose its $575,000 state grant, Hackett said.

“Will it be: King County screws up, so we lose a park on Vashon?” Hackett said. 

The park district has been working for more than eight years on the project, an effort to transform some lumpy fields adjacent to The Harbor School on Vashon Highway into an expansive set of play fields that could accommodate a few soccer matches at once. Also planned for the site are new bleachers, a concession stand and bathrooms, lighting for night practices and games, batting cages and pitcher warmup lanes. 

A final phase of the project — yet to be funded — includes a children’s play structure and a new basketball court. 

The project enjoys widespread community support. A fundraising campaign launched last fall — which has included selling personalized bricks and naming rights to some the fields and bleachers — has brought in $100,000 in contributions. It’s also garnered a $75,000 grant from King County and grants from private foundations.

Starbard, with DDES, said he understands the importance of the project to Vashon. In fact, he said, he called both the county executive’s office as well as County Councilmember Joe McDermott’s office to let them know about the situation. 

“This is a major and complex project for a public entity, and we’re aware that there are grant funds involved and a community expectation about when the project is supposed to be done,” he said.

At the same time, he added, he remains concerned that apparently only one DDES official reviewed a project that would normally require a review by several DDES engineers and other officials and possibly the county’s transportation department or other agencies. 

“A project like this usually involves several other people and departments,” he said.

The stop-work order at this point, he added, “isn’t punitive. ... It’s us stopping the project to figure out where we actually stand.” 

The issue came to DDES’s attention after someone called the agency’s 24-hotline to express concern about the extent of the clearing and grading. “There had been some flooding two Fridays ago, and he was concerned about what was happening on the site,” Starbard said.

As a result of the call, a DDES official visited the site two weekends ago and determined that clearing may have occurred beyond the scope of the permit; a few days later, a stop-work order was issued.

“Even though we have (documents) missing, ... the intent was that the applicant would not (clear) beyond a certain limit, and it appears that clearing ... went beyond the approved limit,” Starbard said.

Wendy Braicks, the park district’s executive director, said she doesn’t think that’s the case.

“We believe the permit gave us the go-ahead to do everything we’re doing up there. ... We have a permit and a stamped set of plans,” she said.

Because of weather, the park district had not planned to work on the site this month, Braicks said. Even so, she added, she’s looking forward to the meeting with DDES Friday to address the issue.

“We certainly have to get it cleared up ASAP,” she said.


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