Commentary: Let’s work together on Edmonds Marsh setback issue

I am disappointed in the City Council’s majority decision to recommend to the State Department of Ecology a 125-foot setback for the Edmonds Marsh. The current setback is 25 feet. The most recent review and analysis by the Department of Ecology puts the recommended set back at 65 feet. I agree that the marsh habitat needs to be protected.

On the adjoining Port of Edmonds property is the Harbor Square Business Park. The council’s recommendation, if adopted by the Department of Ecology, would most likely prohibit any new development at Harbor Square. The existing concrete box buildings will remain in place long into the future. The buildings are grandfathered in by the existing regulations. This may be considered a win for the city council and some of the residents of Edmonds, but it is really a loss for the city, the waterfront, and the economic vitality of the area.

With setbacks at 125 feet it is unlikely that any redevelopment will take place at Harbor Square. Maybe that is the Council majority’s goal.

My disappointment is not with the decision; the council has the right to make that decision, based on public, staff, and expert input. What the council majority has accomplished with this decision is a potential rift between two public agencies…the port and the city. The port might have been willing to work with the city and agreed to a compromise position with some give and take on both sides. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

This is the type of legislative action that has torn this country apart with one side saying, “my way or the highway.” This sets up winners and losers …. Is this really the way you want to run business here in the City of Edmonds. The city is going to need the cooperation of the port sometime in the future. How likely will the port be willing to work with the city given this type of attitude and decision making.

This recommendation by the city council will:
– ensure the existing buildings will remain in place long into the future
–  keep in place the existing 25-foot setback for the existing buildings
– make redevelopment unlikely to take place
– make it unlikely that new public amenities will be built for public enjoyment
– make future enhancement and improvement to the marsh more difficult if the Port elects not to participate.

The above could have been avoided with the parties working together and coming to an agreement on a long range plan, in whatever form that might take.

The city council majority missed an important opportunity here to set in motion a plan for the future. What you have accomplished is plan for no plan for the future.

I do not know if 25 feet, 50 feet, 75 feet or 100 feet is the correct buffer for the marsh. I do know that we all play in the same sandbox. Let’s work together and work out our differences.

— By Chris W. Keuss

Chris Keuss is former executive director of the Port of Edmonds, and also served as director of facilities and property management for CRISTA and manager of parking services for the University of Washington. He has lived in Edmonds for more than 40 years.

  1. Nicely stated. The lack of collaboration, or even consideration, is quite evident. The inclusion of the minority letter to DOE further polarized the factions, it seems to me. Very disappointing all around.

  2. Opponents of the 110-foot buffer continue to put out dire speculations that this regulation will doom Harbor Square and the marsh to neglect and inaction on the part of the Port instead of looking at this as an opportunity to do something extraordinary and historical for our city. The Department of Ecology’s study that was requested by the Port and which suggested the 65 -foot setback was made a few weeks prior to the release of the Department of Ecology’s newest regulations for streams and wetlands which requires a MINIMUM buffer of 110 feet–in some cases the buffer could be 200 feet or more. This Ecology regulation was based on the newest and best available science for protecting these vital areas of our Sound. The council voted for the minimum 110-foot buffer in keeping with these new regulations in order to provide the best opportunity to protect what is left of our ancient marsh. The Edmonds citizens who make up the Save Our Marsh group have asked for a task force to be formed to include all of the entities involved in the marsh and Harbor Square area to discuss options and how we can work together to do what is best for the city of Edmonds and the marsh. Instead of automatically making the negative assumption that the 110-foot buffer prevents any changes or improvements to Harbor Square, let’s explore ideas collaboratively to find an outcome that benefits Harbor Square and the marsh. This is a once-in-a-lifetime (marsh lifetime, that is) opportunity for Edmonds to become a showplace for how a property located next to a sensitive ecological area can be restored in a manner that improves both. We only have one chance to get this right–let’s do it!

  3. Re: The Edmonds Marsh
    Here is the letter I filed with the State Department of Ecology this past week:
    4 Novermber, 2016

    Ms. Maia D. Bellon, Director
    WA State Department of Ecology
    Attention: Director’s Office
    PO Box 47600
    Olympia, WA 98504-6700

    Ref: Setback recommendations for the Edmonds Mash/Willow Creek area and related property.

    Dear Ms. Bellon:

    This letter is in support of the DOE’s recommendation of a 50’ + 15’ (65’) setback for the Edmonds Marsh area.

    As a 51 year resident of Edmonds, I and my wife have been publically, pro-actively supportive of the best possible scenarios for the Edmonds Marsh. The Marsh and related estuary areas are a natural treasure – marginalized in the past unfortunately by short-term thinking. Their value to the general ecosystem and to the ethos of Edmonds as a growing model of commitment to art, culture, ecology, and the general quality of life can hardly be overstated.

    I have spent years examining first-hand the interface between often ancient natural landscape, water features, and other ecological elements in dozens of countries. This experience convinces me that, even in places like the EU where ecological concerns are nearly draconian in implication, there continue to be highly creative intersections between modernization, urbanization, and the respect for the environment.

    There is no reason why the same ‘best of all worlds’ solution cannot be found for the Edmonds Marsh set-back issue. Not a single technical/scientific study done by the WA DOE, SMP planning groups, or others suggest that a setback of greater than 65’is either needed or justified either to protect or encourage flourishing of the Edmonds Marsh.

    As I’m sure you are aware, some time ago the issue of the “Harbor Square Re-Development Plan” (adjacent to the Marsh) became a highly divisive issue in the City of Edmonds. After years of study and diligent, environmentally-friendly planning, a reactionary element in the City Council rejected the plan developed by one of the city’s own departments – the Port of Edmonds. In effect, I and many others believe, that vote substantially set back the best interests of the citizens of Edmonds, effective environmental policy, and the badly-needed healthy development of Marsh-related action.

    My fear, as I have stated directly to the City Council, is that the members of the Council who are proposing and steadfastly holding to a 125’ setback demand are not really motivated primarily by a concern for the Edmonds Marsh, Willow Creek, and the coming wonderful next step of ‘daylighting’ the creek. Rather, their position is a Trojan Horse form of the old, highly divisive, anti-Harbor Square development argument now cloaked in the ‘respectability’ of environmental/ecological concerns. It is an old argument in new clothing – not informed by good research or sound thinking.

    As you know, our Mayor and the three most recently-elected members of the City Council (as contrasted with the ‘old guard’) strongly favor the DOE’s 65’ setback recommendation.

    The ‘compromise’ setback proposal of 50’+15’ (total setback of 65’) will give fresh ‘breathing room’ for the Edmonds marsh; allow for creative access to the Marsh for decades to come – opening the way to a variety of educational and inspirational experiences for Edmonds citizens, students, and visitors alike.

    It will, by the way, still allow for creative, environmentally sensitive re-development of the highly valuable, strategically-positioned Harbor Square area. Certainly a most extraordinary asset that is under the control of one of our own City’s departments! Hundreds of cities like Edmonds wish they had such assets with which to creatively work rather than stifle!

    I strongly encourage the DOE to enforce the proposed 65’ setback, requiring the COE to comply ASAP. It is a decision with implications not only for Edmonds, of course, but for the region’s wider ecological health. The current and future citizens of this community deserve and expect that kind of future, forward-thinking perspective from our government leadership.

    My thanks in advance for your consideration,

  4. I take note in that in Chris Keuss’ commentary that he advocates for a 65-foot buffer/setback as the appropriate buffer width that will allow the Port to redevelop, yet he ends his commentary with “I do not know if 25 feet, 50 feet, 75 feet or 100 feet is the correct buffer for the marsh.” That is the exact question that the Edmonds City Council struggled with in their deliberations, and they did what the law requires them to do, they adopted the 110-foot buffer (plus a 15 -foot setback) based on the “Best Available Science”. The “Science” the Council used to determine the appropriate buffer width was derived directly from a recent June 2016 Dept. of Ecology report that reviewed all the scientific literature and provided guidelines to cities on what buffer width was to be adopted for a Category II saltwater marsh (i.e., 110 feet). Choosing a buffer width of 25 or 50 feet or any other number not based on science would be arbitrary and inconsistent with what the law requires. Its time now for Port Commissioners to begin working with the citizens in their Port District on ways to enhance the 110 foot buffer for the betterment of the Marsh, and move on to planning redevelopment that utilizes all the rest of the Harbor Square acreage outside the 125-foot buffer/setback. That’s a good “compromise” for the Port and the City to move forward.

  5. As one of the “new” Councilmembers I will pose this question. Whom are we to believe when it comes to the health of the Marsh? Is it livelong environmentalists, biologists, and ecologists who say they are concerned for our wetland? Or is it the folks who developed on the actual marsh in the past and would like to do more development now right next to it. Suddenly they care for the Marsh too? And then their is this newest claim they are making of secret intentions. Haven’t they already muddied the waters enough?

    I have consistently supported economic development throughout our city and will continue to. I will also work to protect those tiny pockets still remaining of our natural environment when they are being threatened. Everyone benefits from a healthy, thriving marsh.

  6. The ‘string’ of comments to the original letter very nicely composed, written, and submitted by Chris Keuss completely miss the main point within the letter. It’s not about the marsh or setbacks– it’s the fact that the ongoing distressed relationship between the Port and the City is inhibiting any ‘collaboration’ or whatever that the various respondents are now urging. This distressed relationship goes back several years when the Port spent considerable time and resources attempting to produce an acceptable Master Plan for Harbor Square during which time ‘collaboration’ with the City would have been very helpful. For whatever reason this did not occur and the plan went down in flames– along with any working relationship between the Port and the City.
    And now we want to ‘fix this’?

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