Grumbles arise over proposed home near Quartermaster Harbor

Plans for a 4,600-square-foot home and garage on Quartermaster Harbor have stirred neighbors and housing activists on Vashon, many of whom have written to King County arguing that recent restrictions to protect Puget Sound are meant to block such waterfront development.

The house on the 9000 block of S.W. Harbor Drive is within a “critical area” — in this case a buffer established by the county to protect Puget Sound. Under the county’s critical areas ordinance amended three years ago, development cannot occur within 165 feet of the Sound’s high-water mark unless landowners are able to obtain an “exception” to the complex regulations.

But the owners, Vince and Audrey Young, whose house will sit about 40 feet from the high-water mark, said through their lawyer, Islander Bob Krinsky, that they’re fully complying with the county’s regulations regarding such development.

Building their house on the lot, which they’ve owned for nine years, will require costly mitigation, Krinsky said. What’s more, if they weren’t allowed to build that close to the Sound, county rules would have the result of rendering their lot useless, a “taking” of their property rights.

“The neighbors’ concerns are valid. And there should always be an open discussion. But the issue should be decided by following the rules in place. That’s what my clients are doing,” Krinsky said.

Neighbors and housing activists see it differently. They object not only to the size of the house and its proximity to the Sound but also to the fact that the couple plan to use a county right-of-way — an undeveloped swath of land now thick with towering firs — rather than their own property as their driveway. That county right-of-way, called Water Street on county maps, was given to the county for public use by Islander Charles Lowry, as part of the mitigation he had to undertake when he developed some lots on the Burton Peninsula several years ago, neighbors said.

“It’s particularly galling that the county would give it to these people as a private driveway,” said Susan Lowry, Charles Lowry’s daughter, who now lives on the Burton Peninsula. “It was given for public use.”

Currently, neighbors added, the right-of-way serves as a kind of wildlife corridor, connecting the Sound to Burton Acres, 64 acres of publicly owned woods and trails.

“Water Street has traditionally been used for the public good, as a greenbelt between Quartermaster Harbor and Burton Acres,” said Beverly Miller, who lives next to the undeveloped road. “It’s also a designated critical area. This would be leveling habitat and creating an impermeable surface on public property just for the benefit of that one lot.”

The issue comes at a time when Puget Sound and its health are front and center and many — including legislators, policy makers and conservation organizations — are working hard to restore and protect it. While waterfront development has occurred for decades along the Sound, myriad laws are now in place that limit such development, making it costly and difficult.

Some say ongoing development — except that which is extremely sensitive and small in scale — shouldn’t happen at all along the shores of the Sound.

“We’ve known for 30 years that Puget Sound’s in trouble,” said Sharon Nelson, a state representative from Maury Island and chief of staff to County Councilman Dow Constantine who’s written a letter to county regulators asking about the proposed development. “What we do is mitigate and give exemptions. And that time has passed. We can’t do that any longer.”

The shoreline buffer — added to the county’s critical areas ordinance when it was revised in 2005 — is particularly important to the Sound’s health, conservationists say.

“The shoreline buffer is there for very good reasons,” said Tom Dean, executive director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, which has focused on shoreline protection in recent years. “It’s there to protect overhanging vegetation, to keep houses away from eroding beaches. It’s there because trees growing into the eroding buffer fall and provide a place for juvenile fish to hide. ... It may seem arbitrary, but it’s there for a reason.”

The issue is before the county’s permitting arm, the Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES), where top officials — many of whom are familiar with the case — say their only obligation is to assiduously apply the rules and regulations set in place by the county council. But the process is complex and tricky, they said, in part because the regulations are relatively new and because waterfront development is rare anymore.

“There have been very few shoreline exceptions on Vashon Island,” said Steve Bottheim, planning supervisor at DDES.

In the Youngs’ case, the development is made more complex — and in the eyes of the neighbors, more controversial — because another seldom-invoked rule has come into play. Due to an administrative decision DDES made a few years ago, the county now counts what’s called “submerged lands” — in this case, the beach below the ordinary high-water mark — as part of the site size for zoning and development purposes. County records show the Youngs’ lot as 30,000 square feet. But when those submerged lands are added to the lot size, it becomes — for zoning purposes — 90,000 square feet, Bottheim said.

This is significant because of its critical areas’ designation; under county rules, only 10 percent of a lot can be “disturbed” — used for landscaping, hard-scaping and the actual structure — if the property is within a critical area, Bottheim said.

For the Youngs, that made a huge difference in their development plans, said Islander Mike Bradley, an engineer and permitting consultant who’s helping the couple with their effort. If their lot were 30,000 square feet, their house could likely be only 1,200 square feet in size, Bradley said. But by bringing the beach into the equation, their impact area can be 9,000 square feet, enabling them to build the larger house that they want, he said. All told, according to preliminary plans, the house will be 3,600 square feet with another 665 square feet of covered deck and porch; a detached garage will add 946 square feet. Under this scenario, the Youngs’ disturbance area will now be 8,976 square feet, just under what’s allowed by county regulation, according to a letter Stephanie Warden, the head of DDES, wrote to Nelson.

Bradley, however, said he didn’t even know that tidelands could be considered part of the site size until a meeting with DDES, when they were grappling with the issue of just how much house the Youngs could build; an assistant working with the Youngs on the issue casually asked if the tidelands could be taken into account in determining the size of the disturbance area, Bradley recalled.

“There was a moment of silence,” Bradley said. DDES officials then explained that indeed a “precedent-setting case” allowed property owners to include submerged lands in their calculations, Bradley said.

“They weren’t going to tell us that,” Bradley said.

Bradley said it’s wrong for the neighbors to object to the size of the house or the Youngs’ use of a county right-of-way to access their property.

“It’s (Vince Young’s) constitutional right to propose a structure that meets the letter of the King County code,” Bradley said. “If the concern is that the house is too big, tough. ... He wants to build a home to the maximum size the laws allowed.”

Because a septic drain field lies in front of the house, the Youngs cannot build a driveway across that area. The drain field is there, he added, because of county Health Department regulations, which require that a septic drain field be at least 100 yards from the Sound’s high-water mark. What’s more, the driveway placed on the county right-of-way will use up only a small portion of the corridor and require the removal of few if any trees, he said.

“On the Burton loop, houses are stacked shoulder to shoulder,” he added. “So I don’t see why people are making such a big deal about this.”

But neighbors said many of them, in recent years, have built houses that are modest by contemporary standards; Beverly Miller, next door, for instance, has a 1,600-square-foot home with no garage. They also worry that the exceptions here on the Burton Peninsula can open the door to waterfront development in the other last few pockets of undeveloped land on Vashon.

“Why do we have these regulations to protect the Sound if we’re not going to follow them,” Miller asked.

Meanwhile, Bottheim, with DDES, said the agency is going to do its best to balance the owners’ property rights with the agency’s directive to also protect the environment. It’s very likely, he added, that the Youngs will have to pay for mitigation, money that will go into a DDES fund to be used elsewhere to restore or protect important lands.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “But I think we’re getting there.”

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