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SPU expansion faces hurdle

For the past month, Whidbey Environmental Action Network has been arguing against the proposed development at Seattle Pacific University’s Casey Conference Center near Coupeville.

Earlier in the month, Steve Erickson, litigation coordinator for WEAN, threatened to take action if plans to cut five acres of forest aren’t changed.

That threat became a reality last week when WEAN filed an appeal with the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.

“SPU has left us no option that this is an urban development and a master planned resort,” Erickson said. “We’re going for broke and using all the legal tools at our disposal.”

Erickson argued that recent county decisions that permit SPU to expand the conference center violates the state Growth Management Act.

In December, the Island County commissioners approved the rezoning of the Casey Conference Center to a special review district.

Seattle Pacific University plans to increase the number of beds at the center from 670 to 1,030, building additional conference space and providing additional parking and infrastructure such as water treatment facilities.

SPU wants to expand the center to make it more appealing for adult groups who are planning retreats. The center must generate enough revenue to maintain itself, as it is not subsidized by the college.

The expansion needs 14 acres for growth and five of those acres fall within a forest that would have to be partially cleared.

WEAN argues that such clearing would leave the remaining 20-acres of woodland susceptible to damage from wind and soil erosion.

“Because of the shallow soil, the tree roots weave together like a fine tapestry,” said Marianne Edain of WEAN. “Once torn by development, the edges will keep unraveling as the trees blow down.”

Susan Hizon, coordinator of planning and development for Casey Conference Center, would not comment this week on the appeal. She said that she hasn’t seen the appeal and would need time for the university’s legal department to go through the documents WEAN filed. She did say, however, that the forested area is a big reason groups use the center and that it is in SPU’s interest to preserve the area.

Darrell Hines, associate vice president of Business and Facility Services for SPU, defended the process used to develop the center’s master plan.

Island County is in the same boat as SPU in that officials learned about the legal action Thursday and are figuring out how to respond to the appeal.

“This is a fairly unique petition because all it does is ask questions,” said Jeff Tate, assistant director of the Island County Planning Department.

Tate said the questions WEAN ask in the appeal were answered during the Dec. 16 commissioners meeting, and in the special review district findings of fact that were approved in early February.

“I’m really confident that we’ll have a ruling in the county’s and SPU’s favor,” Tate said.

He added that he wasn’t sure how much SPU will be involved with the process because the appeal deals mainly with the process Island County used in granting a special review district.

Another point that Erickson made about the forest is that its designation as a Natural Heritage site warrants special consideration. The Washington Natural Heritage program is a monitoring and information dissemination service.

The Heritage program documented numerous Douglas fir, grand fir and western hemlock with several of the Douglas and grand fir being 125 to 130 years old. WEAN’s brief notes that the area is unlogged and that windrow has played a large role in creating openings for new growth.

Chris Chappel, vegetation ecologist, said that information gathered by Washington Natural Heritage is used by consultants and builders.

He added that the Heritage program has no regulatory powers and that the site near the conference center is too small to be designated a natural area.

Rob Harbour, manager of Ebey’s Landing Historic Reserve, said that the Natural Heritage title is a little fuzzy and has been left to interpretation.

When asked about SPU’s concern for the environment, Harbour said that SPU has worked with the Nature Conservancy to protect golden paintbrush populations and Crockett Lake.

The coming weeks will see the state hearings board deciding whether WEAN has a valid case to present and file briefs.

Erickson said that the hearing’s board has 180 days to render a decision.

The Casey Conference Center appeal isn’t the only piece of litigation WEAN is undertaking. The Washington State Court of Appeals recently heard arguments about the county’s stream buffers and rural zoning. The was a process that began with an appeal to the hearings board.

You can reach News-Times reporter Nathan Whalen at nwhalen@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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