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Moxlie Creek: Olympia review board refuses to see ‘big picture’


The Olympia Design Review Board met Thursday night to address two development proposals for downtown Olympia. The project that motivated a large number of local environmental activists to turn out was what was originally named the East Bay Flats and Townhomes, but has since been renamed Westman Mill. The name is to honor Ed Westman, who back in the 1920s was one of the pioneers in the plywood industry here in Olympia. The Westman Mill proposal is being developed by the architect Ron Thomas for Olympia developer Walker John.

Not all of the board was present. The meeting was chaired by Jane Laclergue, who is vice chair of the board. The mission of the Design Review Board sounds substantive. The Olympia Municipal Code states that the board will “promote those qualities in the natural environment which bring value to the community; . . . preserve the special character and quality of Olympia by maintaining the integrity of those areas which have a discernible character or are of special historic significance; . . . consider the . . . broader public impact of any proposal.”

See related story: Department of Ecology not doing its job on Moxlie Creek

The glaring issues concerning the Westman Mill proposal are its location, its location and its location. First, it is located in an area that is going to be inundated by the rising sea level. Second, it is located on toxic fill. Finally, it is located in what was historically the Moxlie Creek estuary, where the creek entered Budd Inlet. Moxlie Creek begins with an artesian spring in what is now Watershed Park. It used to provide drinking water for the city of Olympia. Occasionally, chinook, coho salmon and cutthroat trout can be found in the creek within the Watershed Park, but only after they have made their way up through the pipe that carries the lower third of Moxlie Creek in a straight line under Chestnut St. SE.

However, at the beginning of consideration of the Westman Mill project, Jane Laclergue read a statement making clear that big-picture concerns about climate change, toxic soil and estuary restoration were not within the scope of consideration by the review board. Even though a portion of their consideration is called the context review, the context within which anything is relevant is the built environment. Their scope is limited to asking, “Will this new project fit in with other buildings in the vicinity?” and “Does it conform to specific building codes that have been adopted for the type of development that it is?”

This is one of the factors that make it very frustrating for activists with a big-picture agenda to participate in the system that approves land uses, accepts proposals, reviews designs and lets massive impacts on our environment move ahead with no official challenge. There are so many separate levels of government, agencies and departments at each level of government, and committees and boards and councils within each of these. Where can an activist have the best chance of stopping projects that have no reason to be built?

Sitting in the meeting I recalled all of the sociologists and political theorists that I read while studying at The Evergreen State College. I especially recalled Max Weber and his theory that the bureaucratic institution is the best form of modern organization. Bureaucracy, after all, removes personality and emotions and handles each situation in a rational and impersonal fashion. This, Weber argued, would allow for the best outcomes to occur.

Now that we have lived our lives totally dominated by the organizations championed by Weber we know well their shortcomings. The impersonality makes an individual feel insignificant and impotent. The rationality works in favor of the status quo. Each of the officials within the system can deny being able to help an individual or the common good because they are so limited in what they can actually do. Thus, the bureaucracy marches inexorably onward.

After staff and the review board had discussed the project, Jane Laclergue, as chair of the meeting, made an effort to demonstrate to the environmentalists assembled in the audience that a portion of our concerns had been heard and that we did not need to worry. She asked the staff to display the project on a large map of Olympia and show how Moxlie Creek currently moves through the city. It makes a straight line down Chestnut Street SE next to city hall, and the offices of the Washington Health Care Authority, Washington State Department of Commerce, WSU Cooperative Energy Office, Washington State Traffic Safety Commission, and Community Corrections. She referred to the efforts that had been made 20 years or so ago by Evergreen faculty Oscar Soule to daylight the stream. She pointed out that the Westman Mill development is not right on top of the pipe and therefore does not preclude Moxlie from being brought to the surface. She also referred to this effort as a “pipe dream.”

It is little wonder after regarding this process that local environmentalist and activist Harry Branch sent out the following email:

“The City of Olympia is intent on doing whatever it can to kill the last salmon. We have a wonderful opportunity to restore a stream and estuary in which the last remnants of coho and chinook struggle to spawn. Instead we’re going to lock these fish into the ground forever. Pilings will be driven a hundred feet through historic benthic sediments . . . metaphorical daggers through the heart of whatever promise we have for a better future,” Branch wrote.

“Last night’s meeting of the Design Review Board was especially disturbing, being the last opportunity to stop this thing. At the beginning we were told that the board would not be reviewing environmental concerns outside their purview. They can only address code violations,” Branch wrote. “However, it looks to me that according to the city’s website the purpose of the Design Review Board is to cover things that are not covered by code:

Statement of Policy

The City Council finds that new development can have a substantial impact on the character of the area in which it is located. Some harmful effects of one land use upon another can be prevented through zoning, subdivision regulations and building codes. Other aspects of development are more subtle and less amenable to exacting rules promulgated without regard to specific development proposals. Among these are: the general form of the land before and after development, the spatial relationships of the structures and open spaces on adjacent land uses, and the appearance of buildings, signs and open spaces. Such matters require the timely exercise of judgment in the public interest by people qualified to evaluate the design of a new development.

Statement of Purpose:

The Design Review Board (DRB) was established to apply design review requirements and guidelines in the review of public and private projects throughout the City and the Olympia urban growth area in order to preserve the special quality of areas which have a discernible character or are of special historic significance.

This tactic is all too familiar. Take it up with this or that other board or process such as SEPA (the State Environmental Policy Act). Even when allowed to comment, the concern is always existing conditions. There is no avenue to address potential restoration. The goal is to maintain a mutilated state, never recovery.

Not being allowed to speak was painful, especially when the subject of Moxlie Creek was mentioned by the chair. The path of the stream was brought up on a map. The only comment was something like “Yep, there it is” followed by five seconds of silence. Talk about the silent elephant in the room.

And then, of course, Walker John got his deal.

Another local activist, Helen Wheatley, responded to Harry Branch’s email by stating:

“I am going to keep pursuing this with the city, and would welcome support.  Also, the Port’s contract discussions have been very dubious. (The) Port needs to be pushed to charge true market rates.  As usual, the Port talked about this as one thing back in November (business/commercial retail with a little bit of residential) and it has morphed into something else completely inappropriate for this Port property (residential/retail). We need to be putting a press on the Port as well as the city.  They should not be giving away this land for Walker John to fleece the taxpayers with his sweetheart deal on rent collections.”

After the meeting, some members of the review board stayed on to talk about their own personal frustration with having their hands tied by the laws that created the process within which they have a role. They recognize that there are numerous reasons that the developments that are happening should not be doing so in the locations where they are. But historically, much of downtown Olympia is built on fill. Much of that fill is contaminated primarily due to the toxic legacy of Cascade Pole, where they made creosoted pilings. All of the city on this fill and other parts that are on what was historically shoreline before the fill are going to be inundated with the rising sea waters.

None of this makes any difference to developers. Their timeline for profit or loss is much shorter. They will have scored their returns long before the sea-level rise impacts the people who are living or doing business in the buildings that should not be built.

One would think that government would be the champion of the long-term interests of the citizens but this rarely occurs. Policymakers are too influenced by the lobbying and pressure being applied by those who stand to make money. The Department of Ecology could stop this project by designating the land upon which it is being built as a wetland. All during the recent summers, there has been standing water, emergent wetland plants, and the croaking of frogs from the property. But Ecology has ruled that this wetland is solely due to the required stormwater mitigation requirements.

One big disappointment concerning this project is that the local tribes have not chosen to step forward with their nation status and treaty rights. If they did this the Westman Mill project could be stopped dead in the water.

Meanwhile, please consider your choices in the upcoming Olympia city council and Port of Olympia races. Make your decisions based on who is going to most likely oppose projects like Westman Mill.

Krag Unsoeld is a current board member of Green Pages’ parent nonprofit organization, the South Puget Environmental Education Clearinghouse. He also a past president of SPEECH and a long-time environmental activist. Photos by Olympia, Earth Images.


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