City hearing examiner gets earful as nearly 30 testify about Woodway field project

Opponents and supporters of the turf fields project at the former Woodway High School fill the Council Chambers Thursday afternoon.

After listening to the testimony of nearly 30 people during a two-and-a-half hour public hearing Thursday afternoon, City of Edmonds Hearing Examiner Phil Olbrechts admitted to the crowd filling the city council chambers that the proposal before him — to issue variances for a sports fields complex planned at the former Woodway High School — “is a tough one.”

Olbrechts acknowledged nearby residents’ concerns about lighting, noise and traffic likely to be generated from organized sports teams using the  artificial turf fields planned for the property off 100th Avenue West, adding that “I know that people have trouble living next to ball fields.”

He said he will be “keeping all that in mind” as he deliberates the Edmonds School District’s application for a conditional use permit to allow for bleachers, playfield lighting, 70- to 90-foot-high light poles, and ball control fencing over 25 feet high.

In addition to hearing the testimony of neighbors, Olbrechts listened to several Edmonds Heights K-12 parents — and in some cases their elementary- through high school-age students– who have spent the last couple of weeks at school district and city council meetings raising concerns about the potential health impacts of the planned turf fields, which include recycled tire crumbs. (The former Woodway High School building located next to the fields in question is home to several district programs including Edmonds Heights, which serves home-schooled students district-wide.)

Olbrechts told both parents and school district representatives in attendance that he would not address the health concerns raised — or the district’s response to those concerns — since the turf field installation was under the school district’s jurisdiction and was not within the scope of the variances requested. (The Edmonds School Board will decide in May on what type of turf to use in the field installation.)

Also in attendance at Thursday night’s meeting were several earnest supporters of the athletic complex project, including Edmonds School District Athletic Director Julie Stroncek, Edmonds-Woodway Assistant Principal Geoff Bennett, a representative from the Snohomish County Sports Commission and coaches from local youth sports programs, all of whom noted the chronic shortage of playing fields for teams at all levels — from high school to select sports to recreational leagues. Stroncek also said that the new turf fields would host those playing sports through the school district’s V.O.I.C.E. program, which serves developmentally disabled students and is housed in the Old Woodway High School along with Edmonds Heights K-12 and Scriber Lake High School.

The Woodway fields project is the centerpiece of a multi-use “health and wellness campus” project involving the school district, the City of Edmonds and the Verdant Health Commission. The project’s first phase, at a total cost of $4.18 million, involves the installation of two turf fields at the south end of campus, the current location of the baseball field. The multi-purpose fields would be used for soccer, lacrosse, softball and Little League baseball, and would include a walking path. The second phase would include installing two more turf fields at the north end, replacing the current football-size field that is now surrounded by a walking/running track.

The fields lights are now planned for phase two because there currently is no funding, but district officials have said that if and when funding is acquired, the lights would be below the line of trees surrounding property — although neighbors testifying Thursday afternoon were skeptical that would prevent light from spilling into their homes. The district also does not yet have the funding to complete the second and third phases of the project, which would include a storage facility, toilets and a concession stand.

According to school district officials, planning for the Woodway fields renovation has been underway for 10 years, and voters approved $500,000 in seed money for the project in 2008 through the district’s Technology/Capital levy. The project gained momentum when additional funding was acquired, including a $2.5 million grant from the Verdant Health Commission. The City of Edmonds is scheduled to provide maintenance and operations support under a pending agreement.

Those testifying about impacts related to noise, lights and traffic included many who had lived in the area for decades and feared the worst — from decreased property values, to increased traffic and parking that would spill into their neighborhoods, to noise and lights from evening games. Noting that “it seems like bleachers will attract traffic,” Olbrechts did ask City Planner Michael Clugston why traffic wasn’t being considered as part of the conditional use permit. Clugston replied that the traffic issue will be addressed through the building permit submitted to construct the bleachers.

Clugston also acknowledged neighbors’ concerns that under the current City of Edmonds code, noise coming from league- or school-sponsored athletic events are currently exempt from the city’s noise ordinance.

Susie Schaefer of Pilchuck Audubon Society said she wanted to comment on behalf of wildlife that could be affected by the project. The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review of the field project indicated there were no wildlife impacts, but the existing Woodway fields area does play host to a range of wildlife, she said. The installation of light poles is always a concern for the Audubon Society as osprey tend to build nests in them, Schaefer noted.

Near the end of the meeting, City of Edmonds Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director Carrie Hite told those at the hearing that while the city believes the Woodway project “would be an asset for our parks system and an asset for our kids,” the city is committed to being a good neighbor. “We are ready and willing and able to mitigate for noise and traffic – and lights for that matter,” Hite said.

Phase 1 construction is set to begin at the end of May, but before that happens the district needs approval from the City of Edmonds. Once Olbrechts renders his decision on the conditional use permit — likely within 10 days — it is scheduled to be reviewed by the Edmonds City Council at its April 21 meeting through a closed record review —  meaning that public comments will be accepted only from those who offered testimony during Thursday’s hearing. The City Council will then make a final decision on the variances related to bleachers, lights, light poles and fencing.

Olbrechts also reiterated that he won’t be addressing the hot-button issue of whether turf fields should be installed as part of the project, and referred those concerned about that to the school district. “Those are the people you really need to lean on,” he said.

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