VAA gets green light from the county to build project into a wetlands buffer

Vashon Allied Arts cleared a regulatory hurdle last week when King County ruled that the arts organization can build a portion of its proposed performing arts center into the buffer of a low-grade wetland on its five-acre site.

The county’s Department of Permitting and Environmental Review (DPER), in a five-page decision, said it agreed to give VAA a waiver from the county’s critical areas ordinance in exchange for VAA’s promise to restore a swath of wetlands on its site. The agency did so, DPER added in its letter, because the buffer protects what amounts to a low-grade wetland, because VAA would not be able to build its project without a waiver and because the stream that would be affected does not harbor salmon.

VAA, according to the county’s letter, “has shown that there is no other feasible alternative to construct the proposed improvements on the site with less adverse impacts on the wetland buffers.”

VAA still has other regulatory hurdles to clear before it can begin constructing its 20,000-square-foot structure. The arts organization has yet to win approval under the State Environmental Policy Act and still has to secure a building permit.

Even so, Molly Reed, VAA’s executive director, said the organization was encouraged by the latest development.

“It’s another step forward,” she said. “It’s real positive, and we’re happy.”

Under county rules, wetlands are to have buffers that help to protect them from development. Wetlands, sometimes referred to as earth’s sponges, are considered important because they help to protect groundwater health, control erosion, absorb run-off and provide habitat to a wide range of animals.

In this instance, VAA wants to build a portion of its 100-space parking lot for its new arts center in the buffer area. Without a wavier, VAA argued in its application, its project on the constrained site — demarcated by a highway on one side and wetlands on the other — could not move forward.

All told, VAA asked to use nearly 10,000 square feet of wetlands buffer for the parking lot and other aspects of its project. In exchange, VAA promised to restore nearly the same amount of wetlands on its property — a swath of land due east of the project that is now largely composed of invasive blackberries and other non-native plants.

According to Jim Chan, DPER’s director of permitting, VAA will have to provide a bond covering the restoration project before it begins its project. “If they fail to follow through, then we go after the bond,” he said.

The wetlands feed the east fork of Judd Creek, Vashon’s largest watershed and a stream system that the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust is working to protect. Tom Dean, head of the land trust, said he has confidence in the county’s decision.

“I don’t think the county would be issuing a permit unless they felt they had a net positive. They’re not in the business of giving away wetlands,” he said.

Reed, meanwhile, said the biggest hurdle VAA faces in realizing its plans for the $16.5 million project is financial. The organization, which publicly unveiled its plans for the center nearly three years ago, has raised close to $7.3 million toward a fundraising goal of $13.5 million, Reed said. The organization plans to fund the remainder of the project with a $3 million loan. Its board has decided VAA can break ground on the project after the organization has raised 90 percent of that $13.5 million goal, or about $12 million, Reed said.

The organization is making slow but steady progress, Reed said; in the last month it received 16 new gifts. “We’re inching forward right now,” she said.

The next few months, she added, could prove significant as the organization works to secure some larger donations.

“The next six months are going to be very telling, because of some of these big gifts we’re working on,” she said.


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