Gateway: News

Residents worry runoff from senior-living development will harm watershed

A shallow, seasonal creek flows down parallel to Shirley Avenue into the Donkey Creek Estuary in Gig Harbor. The stream is too small and shallow for fish but could be considered a watershed that provides breathing water to the salmon in the harbor.
A shallow, seasonal creek flows down parallel to Shirley Avenue into the Donkey Creek Estuary in Gig Harbor. The stream is too small and shallow for fish but could be considered a watershed that provides breathing water to the salmon in the harbor. Courtesy

George Flaherty has lived on Shirley Avenue in Gig Harbor for a long time.

“I used to know Shirley,” Flaherty said of the street’s namesake while walking up the street one morning. “She was a very nice lady. Most of us have lived her 20 or more years.”

Flaherty, a retired commercial pilot, has really enjoyed living in his Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home where he can look upon the harbor and all the happenings in town. It’s not hard to imagine why Flaherty loves his little slice of Gig Harbor. So when a developer decided to start building across the street, he became curious.

“I am not against new growth, I don’t want to be seen as that,” Flaherty said. “But I do want to make sure they are doing things correctly.”

The development project is titled Cottages at Rosedale with the city of Gig Harbor, and will consist of more than 80 senior-living homes with attached garages, a dog park and other community amenities. According to city documents, the new 55-and-older community will have two entrances, one off of Rosedale St. and one within Shirley Avenue.

Flaherty and his neighbors have a few common concerns about the new project: loss of green space, an increase in traffic, safe ways to enter into oncoming traffic from the busy road, noise and more. But the one issue that Flaherty has been commenting on the most is the possible effects the development will have on a nearby creek.

The small creek, which has no official name, runs parallel to Shirley Avenue and downslope toward the harbor. Flaherty’s research, and city documents, show the creek runs from under Rosedale and is attached to a pond in Wilkinson Farm Park and runs downhill into Donkey Creek Estuary, where salmon chum and fingerlings are born and grow.

“I was originally worried about the beauty and I wanted it protected,” Flaherty said. “But then I started doing my research and I think there is a chance it can be polluted.”

On Dec. 5 the city’s planning department released a Mitigated Determination of Nonsignificance in regard to the development project. The planning commission determined the project’s site plan does show “that there will be no probable significant adverse environmental impacts from the proposal,” according to the Washington State Code, as long as the developer follows a set list of mitigations to help ease the probability of adverse impacts.

Some of these mitigations include ways for the development to connect to city stormwater drains, improvements for pedestrian safety on nearby streets and new sidewalks near Rosedale to help with the increase in pedestrian traffic. It seems that none of the mitigations control if and when the developer could build over the unnamed creek next to Shirley Avenue.

The public was allowed to submit comments on the determination for official review by Dec. 19.

The developer proposing the project is Norpoint Communities, located in Tacoma. The company builds senior-living apartments and has locations in Tacoma, Federal Way, Olympia and more around the South Sound. This will be the first apartments built in Gig Harbor.

Flaherty said when he reviewed the public documents he found that the developer labeled half of the creek from a type 4 non-fish stream to a ditch.

A non-fish stream is a small stream of water that does not home any fish, such as the nearby salmon, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Flaherty said he has never seen fish in the stream, since it is shallow, rocky and uphill. The water is also seasonal, while the area is muddy and wet all year, a flowing stream of water is only seen during the wettest parts of the year. While observing the stream in December, you can hear the water splash across rocks downhill. While a non-fish stream may not home any fingerlings or chum, the water does flow down to the estuary and could be considered a watershed.

A watershed is simply defined by the Department of Natural Resources as area of land where all of the water that falls in it and drains off of it goes to a common outlet, such as Donkey Creek Estuary. This water, which is usually fed by stormwater runoff from nearby trees and soil, is used as breathing water by the fish a mile below.

“We have to worry about the watershed,” Flaherty said. “It’s a unique ecosystem. It isn’t confined to just one stream.”

Because the project was given an MDNS from the city, it is likely an environmental impact study will not be done before the development breaks ground. City and development project maps show that areas above and below the proposed project are also considered “protected” water areas, because it directly affects the fish living in the harbor.

“It makes no sense that this is connected to a protected area of water but it is not protected,” Flaherty said. “This is an asset to the city that may be put at risk. I am not against the development, I just want an environmental impact study done.”

PUBLIC OPINIONS

Flaherty has made many written comments to the city, along with his neighbors and other concerned residents. He is also interested in learning how the developer will treat possible pollutants, like sewage, and how it will treat storm runoff.

Todd Steel, co-founder and president of Norpoint Communities, said it’s frustrating to hear these comments made about the project because he feels his team has tried to be good neighbors and stewards of the land.

“We are carving out areas of use away from the wetlands,” Steel said. “We have over 20 acres and we are only going to use 10 for our units.”

When the project first began, Steel said his company hired a contract biologist to examine the area, included the controversial creek, and so did the city of Gig Harbor.

Both biologists did not identify the stream of water near Shirley Avenue as a creek, Steel said.

“It’s not a creek,” he said. “Yes, there are wetlands in the area but the whole place is not a wetland.”

Norpoint has also made it a point to try and mitigate any possible impacts to the environment, making it unnecessary to have an EIS completed.

“Yes, we will have to run sewer lines down the hill,” Steel said. “But we have plans to replant native trees and to mitigate our impact. We could have an EIS but it won’t change what our (biologists) said.”

Steel isn’t new to these types of concerns, since he and his father have constructed many retirement home villages across Pierce and King counties.

“For anyone who is against development, I see us as the lesser of two evils,” he said. “We aren’t going to just build homes and leave, we are invested in Gig Harbor. We will own the property and manage it. Plus, we are making this a retirement community, which, our data show, lower levels of traffic and noise.”

Carl Desimas, associate planner for the city of Gig Harbor, is the lead on the Cottages at Rosedale project. He has received many public comments on the project, including one from a member of the Suquamish Tribe asking if the tribe or the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as checked the defined the stream type.

“Why would you not initiate an (environmental study) to better understand how this densely populated community would impact a delicate wetland that connects and flows into the Puget Sound?” resident Brian Barker stated in a public letter of comment to the city.

A letter from the Washington Department of Ecology also commented on the project, stating the department would like “an opportunity to review the wetland reports for the project, including the wetlands delineation and ratings to ensure wetlands were accurately categorized.”

The DOE also noted the proposed project site is located near three “contaminated sites” and there is a chance further work will need to be done to ensure there is not a high amount of lead or arsenic in the ground where construction will take place.

No public meetings have been placed or have been scheduled for the project, Desimas said.

Flaherty hopes the city will listen to residents like him and will take cautionary steps to ensure the safety of the local ecosystem which has gained Gig Harbor much praise over the last few decades.

“We just want them to do it right the first time,” he said.

Danielle Chastaine: 253-358-4155, @gateway_danie

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