King County is about to begin an environmental review of a parcel of land on the south end of Vashon that was clear-cut last fall, a review that will determine what mitigation — if any — is needed to address logging that has already taken place on the site.
The review, part of the SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) process, will include a public comment period that will begin later this month.
The logging of the property, owned by Christopher and Amanda Lawson, has stirred considerable upset in this wooded area near the so-called Tahlequah Y south of Burton.
A SEPA review is required prior to the clearing of forestland beyond a certain threshold, according to Jim Chan, permitting director for the county’s Department of Local Services. He said the Lawsons exceeded that threshold and did so without either a SEPA review or all of the required permits.
The Lawsons, however, are working with the county to get into full compliance with county regulations, Chan said, and are expected to fully participate in the SEPA review.
“They did an action beyond the permit, which happens,” Chan said. “We notified them of the corrective actions, and they are taking those corrective actions. We are working with them on getting this issue resolved.”
The Lawsons’ land is zoned RA-10, which allows one single family home per 10 acres as well as agricultural uses, including animal husbandry. With proper permitting, accessory buildings and clearing and grading are also allowed on property in the RA-10 zone, Chan said. In fact, he said, the code allows for all the activities the Lawsons are engaged in on the land and even allows for the clearing of all 21 acres — as long as permitting requirements are met.
“As long as you provide storm water mitigation, get the proper permits and provide for erosion sediment control, the code allows you to clear cut,” Chan said. “There are no limitations, at least on this RA-zoned property, that prohibit you from doing a clear cut.”
He also noted that while the whole island is designated as a “critical aquifer recharge area,” the Lawsons’ land has no critical areas, such as wetlands, streams or steep slopes. Noting the island-wide aquifer recharge designation, Chan referenced the recent asphalt millings controversy and said that while asphalt millings are not allowed in critical recharge areas, there is not a prohibition on cutting trees in them — as long as the proper permits have been obtained.
After the Lawsons bought the land, he said they applied for a residential building permit, identifying where the house would go and where they would clear. But on the remaining 75 percent of their site plan, the engineer had written “clear and grub.” The county’s interpretation was that the Lawsons were going to clear the understory, based, in part, on supporting materials with their application, Chan said. The county initiated a code enforcement action after last fall’s logging, and the Lawsons are proceeding with additional permitting requirements. Chan said he believes the excess logging was the result of the Lawsons misunderstanding what the building permit allowed, not a willful violation.
“I believe they made an error, we informed them of their error, and they are working with us to correct the error,” he said.
The Lawsons bought their 21 acres off Vashon Highway in 2015, with the hope, they said, of building a home, creating a farm and running an outdoor school there. In 2016, they cleared some of their land, but after receiving their building permit last August, officials say they cleared approximately 9 acres beyond the scope of their permit. Chris Lawson said before they did so, they were working closely with their civil engineer and county officials, had had a preconstruction meeting over the phone with the county and believed they had all the permits needed in order to proceed.
“There is no way we would have moved forward with this if we did not think it was all in order,” Amanda Lawson said.
Soon after the logging began, however, neighbors filed complaints with the county about the clearing, asking for an immediate halt to the logging, and are angry about the county’s inaction. According to Chan, staffing constraints prohibited a prompt trip to the property to investigate the complaints; neighbors, however, say a phone call, text or email may have been sufficient to stop the clearing.
The situation between the Lawsons and some of the neighbors was already acrimonious before the couple began their most recent clearing on their land. Over the last two years, neighbors have filed several complaints with the county, including about the Lawsons living in an RV in violation of county code, about the outdoor school, and about the animals on their property, among other matters.
Last month, three neighbors, Lincoln Lee, Will Seltzer and Marjorie Cornell, told The Beachcomber they were concerned that the logging would damage the local forest, affect their water quality and lower their property values.
On March 28, the three neighbors and two others — Tim Grief and M. MacKinnon — took out a full-page ad in The Beachcomber, detailing their perspective of the Lawsons’ actions and calling for “restoration of the land.”
“If the clear cutting of the forest is permitted without consequences, then any woodland can be cut down,” they wrote.
On April 3, the county sent the Lawsons a “posting package,” requiring them to post a sign by April 17 announcing the launch of a SEPA review, Chan said. The county will also send a notification about the SEPA review to neighbors within a 500-foot radius and all parties of record. Typically, the SEPA public comment period is 14 days, Chan said, but the county will take public comment throughout the entire review process of the application, which could take months.
Chan said county officials will make their determination by assessing the impact of the logging and whether King County has codes in place to mitigate for its impacts. If it does, he said, then officials will decide if the environmental impact is great enough to require mitigation or if that impact is considered “non-significant.”
“We have not done it yet, but our sense is that we do have adequate codes to mitigate for the impacts,” he said.
If all goes well for the Lawsons, he said, the county will issue the necessary permits and find them in compliance with SEPA. Both decisions can be appealed in Superior Court.
People who wish to comment for the SEPA review should do so by emailing Kimberly.Claussen@kingcounty.gov or sending a letter to Department of Local Services — Permitting, Attn: Kim Claussen, 35030 SE Douglas Street, Suite 210, Snoqualmie, WA 98065.