Council debates memorandum for Edmonds Marsh, OKs design dollars for 4th Avenue Cultural Corridor

View of Unocal cleanup site in Edmonds. (Photo courtesy Washington State Department of Ecology)

The Edmonds City Council spent nearly two hours Tuesday discussing the pros and cons of a proposed memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the city and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) related the Unocal property located next to the Edmonds Marsh. The item was put forward for discussion only, with a decision to come later.

First, some background: In January 2005, WSDOT and Unocal entered into a purchase and sale agreement for the property, a former bulk fuel terminal and asphalt production plant. At the time, WSDOT intended to use the site for a multimodal transportation center known as Edmonds Crossing, but that plan has been abandoned. Since 2017, contractors for Chevron — which purchased the property from Unocal — have been working under a Department of Ecology order to clean up contamination on the site.

City of Edmonds officials and marsh advocates have been hopeful that the city could eventually purchase the property from WSDOT, which would assist with both the city’s marsh restoration and Willow Creek daylighting efforts and promote the return of salmon runs there.

Prior to the council’s discussion regarding the issue Tuesday night, several public commenters spoke in favor of the MOU, stating there was misinformation being spread that implied a variety of consequences from the MOU that they said were untrue. Among them: that the agreement would be binding and could also force the city to pay fair market value at the time the property is sold since it is located in an area zoned for commercial waterfront.

“I believe the city’s most important marsh-related need right now is to raise our negotiating status with WSDOT,” said Edmonds resident Kathleen Sears. “The MOU does that by beginning communication about the Unocal purchase.”

However, Joe Scordino — who for years has coordinated volunteer-driven marsh cleanup work — criticized the draft MOU for missing several important elements. “The word marsh, the word salmon don’t appear even once in the document,” Scordino noted.

Tuesday night’s presentation began with a testy exchange between Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson and Councilmember (and recently declared mayoral candidate) Diane Buckshnis. As Nelson began to describe the efforts of his administration’s work on the marsh issue, Buckshnis called for a point of order, stating that the council didn’t need the mayor “as the leader to indicate the story behind this.”

“Point not taken,” Nelson replied. “As the chair of this…meeting and all the other things I’ve listened to thousands of hours of minutiae from councilmembers. I think I’ve earned the right to introduce this topic.”

The mayor said he has met with a range of stakeholders — from elected officials to the Washington State Departments of Ecology and Transportation to environmental organizations — “trying to find a path forward to restore our marsh. No state agency wants this property,” Nelson said. “We have not had a productive relationship with the future owner of the property — WSDOT — until now.”

Nelson said the MOU comes down to: “Who do you trust to restore the marsh? The city or the free market. The city’s path is… to restore the marsh. The alternative path will fast track the marsh to development and continuation of the decimation of salmon.”

Addressing earlier criticism about what isn’t contained in the draft memorandum, the mayor said he has negotiated with WSDOT to ensure that “the MOU will now state that the city’s interest is ‘for the purpose for expanding the marsh estuary.'”

Edmonds Community and Economic Development Director Todd Tatum then explained the process the city has followed so far to develop the MOU. While there is a state budget proviso that directs WSDOT to give the City of Edmonds the first right of purchase of the Unocal property, “it doesn’t discuss how we get here together,” Tatum said. “WSDOT came strongly our way, bringing their staff and leadership to the table, to ensure that we discussed in depth, the how.”

The MOU, he said, is “a beginning that let’s us focus on next steps.”

This circa 1955 photo shows the asphalt plant occupying the lower yard area of the Unocal Edmonds site. The asphalt operations are the source of the majority of soil and water contamination being addressed in the present cleanup. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

There are still many steps in the process before Unocal property is transferred to WSDOT, Tatum added. Chevron has to receive written confirmation from the Department of Ecology that they have satisfactorily performed the remediation work. In addition, the city later this summer will have an opportunity — in an open public meeting with Ecology — to view “many of the relevant documents” related to the cleanup that the city can use to base future decisionmaking regarding a possible property sale, Tatum said. Ecology anticipates a 45-day public comment period for these documents by the end of 2023.

Councilmember Buckshnis asked why the city wouldn’t want to wait until the documents are released this summer, so officials and citizens can have an opportunity to review them. “There’s some of us that want to know all of the information first so we can make a prudent decision as we move forward in this process,” Buckshnis said.

Councilmember Susan Paine spoke in favor of the MOU, stating it is focused on finding a path toward agreement regarding the Unocal property — “and it also shows that we’re committed to this property,” she said.

Councilmember Will Chen said he views the MOU is one of the steps that can move the city closer to Unocal acquisition. However, he added that “we want to have our eyes wide open” regarding potential contamination risks at the site.

Councilmember Dave Teitzel said his concern about the MOU is that “even though it’s nonbinding, it kind of sends you down the path for a purchase.” Instead, Teitzel said he’d like to explore the idea of transferring the property “to another state agency and have Edmonds make a commitment to be a partner in supporting objectives that it shares with the state.” He listed these as salmon recovery and recovery of the resident Southern orcas, carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reduction, open space preservation and bird and wildlife restoration.

In response, Tatum stated that the city has discusssed the possibility of a property transfer to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife or the Department of Natural Resources “but those conversations weren’t particularly fruitful.”

Tetizel later made a motion that the council draft a letter to the state — jointly signed by the Edmonds mayor and city council — that demonstrates Edmonds is committed to the state’s environmental goals when it comes to the Unocal property, “whether or not we get to this MOU signature soon.”

The motion passed by a 4-3 vote, with Teitzel, Chen, Olson and Buckshnis voting in favor.

In other business Tuesday night, the council:

4th Avenue Cultural Corridor map.

– Unanimously approved a contract for $67,793 with KPG Psomas for 10% design work on the 4th Avenue Cultural Corridor Project. The council in 2022 approved allocating $34,000 that matches a state grant for project design. The Edmonds Center for the Arts is also contributing $20,000 to the project. The idea behind the corridor — which covers the section of 4th Avenue stretching from Main Street to the Edmonds Center for the Arts (ECA) on Daley Street — is to provide a space for cultural events and street artists that also feature art elements and a pocket park.

The corridor has been under discussion since 2004, and it was the centerpiece of the city’s successful application to become the state’s first Creative District. Community Services and Economic Development Director Tatum noted that the contract is below the $100,000 limit required for council approval. But selected contractor KPG Psomas would be eligible for an additional work beyond this phase should additional funding become available later.

– Heard a report from the council’s city attorney assessment subcommittee, which is researching what type of city attorney services — contract or in house — the city should have beyond 2023. Teitzel asked councilmembers to review the results of the subcommittee’s final project: a survey of nine comparator cities on their city attorney models and expenses. The council is set to decide at its April 25 meeting whether to move forward with issuing an RFP for a contracted outside city attorney — the model the city currently has — or hiring an in-house attorney. You can see the related documents at this council agenda link.

– Approved an ordinance covering proposed April 2023 budget amendments after agreeing to remove one — for a mechanic to service the city’s new fleet of vehicles, which are still on order.

– Delayed until a future date a proposal that would double the vehicle license fee — from $20 to $40 annually — charged to Edmonds residents.

— By Teresa Wippel


  1. Great recap Teresa. I put about 100 finger miles on my Comcast remote control switching from Mariner’s, Kraken, and Council. You filled in some needed gaps in my info. from Council meeting. Watching Kraken win was more fun. Mariner’s, not so much.

  2. Thank you for your careful coverage of Edmonds City Council meetings Teresa.
    It is fascinating to see the 1955 photo of the asphalt plant on the site planned for restoration to a functioning estuary. Puts it into perspective.

  3. So, when did the mayor become so concerned about salmon? In December he just took $2M out of the budget that was earmarked for Perrinville Creek restoration. A project which can help restore salmon recovery too. Perrinville Creek has a near-term, unobstructed path toward restoration, unlike the Unocal property with all of its unknown environmental remediation issues. He promised us a plan about the creek almost two years ago. We haven’t seen it yet. Now he’s switching focus, hoping we forgot about his other promises. I guess it’s election season again.

    Let’s stop the bickering and get something done!

  4. Yes, the complexities of the MOU are interesting.
    It’s great to have such a robust conversation about it.
    What I gather is that we are all committed to restoring the marsh,
    one way or another.
    And I feel good about that.
    Thank you everyone.

    1. Bill,
      I agree. Listening to the Council discussion of the MOU was reassuring. Council members asked thoughtful, detailed questions, and every CM acknowledged the community’s commitment to restoring the Edmonds Marsh. Thank you, Council President Tibbott, for putting the item “forward for discussion only” allowing this important conversation to occur. Thank you, Council, for openly discussing the complexities of the MOU.

  5. Diane was right with her point of order about the mayor suddenly becoming the presenter at what is supposed to be the City Council’s meeting; that the mayor just moderates by law. By virtue of his power position he was able to walk right over a point of order without discussion or input from anyone else on the Council. I don’t see how anyone can keep defending this type of government and keep a straight face while doing so; yet people, like even Diane herself, defend this system of government as the best we could ever hope to get.

    Mr. Teitzel’s letter to WSDOT signed by all of Edmond’s elected officials makes way more sense than the MOU that is basically the mayor’s idea that his staff is obliged to support. This MOU is an all but meaningless campaign tactic that could really backfire into helping make the city taxpayers liable for huge clean up costs that haven’t even been divulged to the Council. This is starting to look like a giant game of “not it” on the issue of paying for the clean up of the property.

  6. Both State Budgets have Edmonds identified for “the right of first purchase” of the Unocal property for the intended use to rehabilitate near-shore habitat for salmon and related species. What does the City stand to gain by having this MOU signed without citizen involvement or being able to review the extensive list of clean-up documents or documents WSDOT withheld in 2.8 of the MOU. Or simply, WSDOT is saying sign first, then we will disclose important documents?

    Let’s not lose focus that Chevron has sued WSDOT to speed the process along so that they can be removed from any aspects of paying for any further clean-up costs. A Department of Ecology (DOE) Representative stated that Unocal is holding up public comment period as they have not completed the DOE’s Terrestrial Evaluation Report. It is expected by July. This report identifies all the chemicals we cannot see.

    So, let’s be pragmatic, wait for the clean-up documents and the withheld WSDOT reports. Let’s involve all our citizens and discuss all alternatives such as transferring the property to other State agencies like Department of Natural Resources. The purchase could be costly to the taxpayer, so let’s be fiscally responsible.

    1. Folks, here we have one clear and concrete choice in the upcoming Mayor’s race. Whose approach to this most critical of issues makes more sense – Buckshnis or Nelson? A little off subject, but another thing to keep in mind is that a vote for Brad Shipley in the Primary will also probably be a vote for Nelson, as well, to get into the General; with there now being three opponents to Mr. Nelson in the race. I find Brad’s somewhat later entry kind of interesting. I was too stupid to figure that out in the last election. I’m a bit slow witted; but I try not to make the same mistakes twice.

  7. Our WSDOT ferry system is both broken and broke with bad past decisions coming firmly home to roost. Old ferries have been partially restored and then declared unfit for further use. Smaller new ferries have been built and found to be faultily constructed and had to be partially rebuilt in some cases. The ferry system is severely short of both serviceable ferries and the people to run them. The WSDOT property in question was going to be used for a new all purpose ferry terminal and transit center until the ferry system discovered they were broke and the land needed a vast and extensive environmental clean-up before being used for anything. Does anyone really think this incompetent excuse of a public service agency isn’t going to demand as much as the market will bear for the property, to try to negate some of their past mismanagement?

  8. As Joni Mitchell sang – “pave paradise and put up a parking lot.” And for WSDOT – a very expensive one.

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