By: Tom Campbell
The author was one of the principal architects of the Growth Management Act (GMA) in 1990 and a member of the Governor’s Land Use Study Commission. He is a consultant on public engagement strategies, a judge for the Governor’s Smart Communities awards, the chair of the Charlotte Martin Foundation, and a member of Clearwater Commons.
This is the story of a growth management policy wonk turned developer. It is a high anxiety story of a successful effort to build one of the most comprehensive green low impact developments (LID) in the Puget Sound area – through some of the laws I helped to create. This arduous five year journey was made even more difficult by a housing recession; a complex web of new and complicated regulations; and, a reeling banking industry.
However, I don’t intend to use this story to whine about regulators and bankers. I want to demonstrate the trials of the LID process, share important questions that emerge from the effort, and indicate ways to translate the potential of LID and green building into more lasting, positive impacts.
In June of 2006 a group of families banded together to form a community on 7 1/2 acres in unincorporated Snohomish County just north of Bothell. We wanted to develop a 16 unit compact green development combining stream and wetland restoration into an affordable set of housing alternatives.
I volunteered to lead the project, because as one of the principle architects of the Growth Management Act (GMA) I knew a fair amount of what I was going into. But I had no clue that I’d be down on my knees praying for a tiny break in a regulation that might break the project. Each step took incredible persistence and each new requirement added costs that could easily break the project’s success.
Developers I worked with during the development of the GMA might smugly remind me that these new regulations were unworkable. While I now have much greater sympathy for the impact of multiple regulations, I still defend the intent of the GMA and other environmental regulations as important protections to sustain this region.
LID has become the new direction for the future development standards and is supposed to be used area “wherever feasible.” However, it has a long way to go before it can be a viable approach.
Background on the Dream: The Clearwater Commons purchased the land in June of 2006 from a developer that was in the process of short platting the property into a typical Cul-de- Sac development complete with the typical hideous detention pond. Our goal was to establish a creative community that blended cooperative living and environmental restoration. Many of us had worked together for years having created the Clearwater School, an alternative private school for kids ages 4-19. We purchased the school and commons property at the same time with our vision of a community and school right on North Creek, and a salmon restoration project that would run the length of both properties.
Above: The original site and farmhouse that we purchased in 2006.
L.I.D. – We’re Guinea Pigs! Five years ago, LID was just in its infancy but held great hope for trying to manage stormwater systems. The Puget Sound Action Team had just published their Technical Assistance Manual for LID and Snohomish County had adopted it as voluntary guidance. We were one of the first to go through the new LID process established in Snohomish County – a leader in promoting LID and we were hopeful that our project would be well received.
Shooting for the Moon and Falling back to Earth: When we started this project and with our pioneering green engineering firm 2020 Engineering out of Bellingham – we naively tried to push the limits for all of the LID approaches. We used a community design process that was guided by our members Chad and Lisa Port who own Banyon Tree Design. They provided an excellent process to integrate site planning for LID with landscape design and green homes. We developed a design to increase the lots from 9 to 16 units to increase density and defray costs.
With a new LID ordinance in place, we felt confident that in our pre-application process our proposal would be met with enthusiasm. We proposed a 12 ft pervious road inside the Commons, hammerhead fire truck turnaround, green roofs, pervious frontage improvements, 18 ft wide access road, raingardens, pin-pile foundations, native plantings, and a walk-in community with parking on the perimeter.
During our first review none of the LID specialists were in the room. Instead, we met with reviewers who had been there a long time and had not seen a comprehensive LID development. There was a lot of head scratching and statements like – we’ve never done that before and if we do it for you then everyone else would want it (narrow roads). I was starting to get a sinking feeling and left feeling disheartened.
Development Permit – We’re Deviants! Snohomish County worked hard to establish a process that would give guidance to LID efforts. And they’ve continued to try and promote it even with substantial budget cuts. But every time you want to change something from the standards and approved engineering designs – you have to go through this inside deviation process. This goes to an internal deviation committee that then says yes or no. So, raingardens in the right of way? Never done it that’s a deviation. Narrower roads? Never done it that’s a deviation.
Every time they want a change it has to be drawn up and proposed and approved. Every time the whole site plan needs to be redrawn. This costs time and a lot more money. And with the number of deviations we had from the standards – we were clearly deviants. A fact that I’d be proud of if it didn’t hurt us in the pocket book.
Down on my Knee – Fire and Life Safety Win Again: The largest source of impervious surfaces are the roads. So if we were to make a statement in developing narrower roads this was our chance. The Commons voted to take a stand for an 18 ft roadway. I made a case that narrow roads reduced the impact on the environment and examples across the country where narrower roads were compatible with fire and life safety concerns. The main issue is that fire officials don’t want their largest fire trucks to get blocked in case of an emergency and therefore justify that a 20 ft wide road is the absolute minimum. The county had reduced our road widths down from 27 ft to 20ft so we were making progress. But we also needed the 18 ft wide road to avoid any wetland impacts so there was a dual purpose.
I sat down with the County Road Engineer and begged our case. He was sensitive to not entering the wetland and instructed his staff to work with us. However during that very week the fire district officials made a concerted appeal to the County Council and won a commitment to not deviate from a 20ft road width and we were sunk. I was on my knee hoping for a change but it was not to be. The road width and safety margins pushed us into the wetland and the dreaded Corps of Engineers permit. Something my developer colleagues told me to avoid at all costs.
81 sq ft and at the Door of the Corps: The effect of the 20 ft road width is that we pushed the road into an identified wetland by 81 sq ft. Now this is old pasture and filled with reed canary grass – but it is a wetland just the same and I respect that. But being forced to get a permit from the Corps of Engineers for 81 sq ft – a minimal amount is crazy from a development perspective. We were stuck. I asked our biologists to see if there was any way around this and there wasn’t. Our Corps permit that was expected to take 6-8 months took 16 months and set us back a year. Couldn’t the county have the right to manage such a small wetland impact? This is where federal, state, and local rules need flexibility. The Corps should focus on major impacts and water flows not touching every project that has such a small impact. Come on! I kept thinking wouldn’t a road turnout work – or a sign saying caution wetland approaching – narrow road ahead? Not!
Our green wall and 20ft wide road that had an impact of 81 sq ft into the wetland.
Value Engineering and the Affordability Challenge: Our original aspiration to shoot the moon and have all of our roads and paths be pervious met with the reality of wider roads and the need to reduce overall site costs. Our families want to be environmentally correct but it also has to be affordable. So we went to work seeing where we could cut costs. All of our proposals had to be consistent with the Department of Ecology Stormwater Manual and we wanted to achieve a zero discharge goal. This meant that all water would be dispersed on site. We found that we had room in the amount of amended soils we would have to add, sidewalk widths, and reduced pervious pavements in the parking lot. We also were able to trade-off some of our green roofs with pin-pile foundations. We did our best to keep it as affordable as possible and maintain all of our low impact development techniques.
Really? Site planning and permitting cost nearly as much as Site Development: If we’d done the cookie cutter approach to a planned unit development – we would not have the degree of added costs that we did. But we spent 2/3rds as much on site design, engineering, analysis, and permitting as we did on the actual site infrastructure itself.
Every deviation required redoing the site plan. Each time the county wanted more detail in the drawings. There were not standards to draw from. Permit costs and fees hit you at every step and for every agency from federal, state, county, water and sewer districts, impact fees, and bonds. With a stalled housing economy, increasing fees to make up for budget cuts is an unacceptable strategy. Housing needs to be a place that will rebuild the economy and low impact development should be encouraged at all steps in the process.
In the field – watch out for decisions that can hurt ya. A great contractor is a god send and I had one – Lane Hopkins from LMH Construction in Marysville. Mine was constantly saving me money where he could. But when the trenches are open the equipment is sitting and a field inspector wants a change – you are over a barrel. Case in point: King County didn’t like Alderwood Wastewater’s proposal for a sewer hook up. They wanted a fancy drop system at the manhole and wanted reduced grade for the sewer line. Instead of a 6% slope which one Alderwood approved the other wanted a 2% slope. What are you to say? Sorry, everyone stop while I fight this one. So in the larger scheme of things I went with it – fearing but not realizing the impact. Well a six foot deep trench became a 12 ft deep trench and all of the increased costs that went with it. The decision by a sole inspector cost us $25,000!
Fees Please: Every step of the way is a chance for the permitting agencies to get a bite out of the apple. Frankly, I had no idea how this piles up. You plow ahead – you try and make your project as affordable as possible (confession – we’re not trying to make a profit and get our costs covered) But there’s always another fee – for more bonds, for water, sewer, impact fees, connection fees, review fees and as development agencies they’ve had to cut to the bone too. But in a time when it is almost impossible to fund a project and we need housing to come back, it floors you that these are still going up and astronomically.
Case in point: Over the last three years, the sewer connection charges have more than tripled. My friendly engineers at the local water department warned me that I might want to buy my general facility charges this year because next year they will double and probably again the year after that (they did). I couldn’t believe it and called the local master builder association to take a look at it. Nothing’s happened but it seems like the large Brightwater sewer project in south Snohomish County is taking in more than black stuff – it’s racking up greenbacks for the very development it is supposed to support. But a tripling of a fee???
Regulatory Purgatory: By and large, most of the agencies I worked with were very helpful and after pleading my case would provide needed assistance and look for ways to reduce costs. By last count, I had to work with 8 federal, state, and local agencies and secure 7 permits.
The lengthy process, the multiple permits, the legalistic nature, and the risk adverse agencies get in the way of providing a timely, consistent, and coordinated approach to low impact development. This was a goal of the GMA and there is a long way to go if we are to have the right balance of environmental protections and regulatory fairness. Overall, the rules and regulations are needed but there needs to be greater certainty and streamlining of low impact development standards.
Banking and Housing Crisis -The Perfect Storm: Remember that we’re different. Banks don’t like unique things anymore, they smell risky – something green, airspace condominium, dense development, cooperative community. Whoa. Money is incredibly tight anyway for construction financing, but bankers have the deer in the headlight foreclosure eyes. It was hard to understand how a bank would turn down a project that is pre-sold and not a speculative project. After talking to nearly 14 banks, we were successful in using the effective team from the Capital Resource Group and Cobalt Mortgage in Kirkland to put together a construction financing deal. It took two years and a glimmer of hope in housing prices that seems to be disappearing again. There is still a ways to go to have the real estate markets recognize the greater value of green building projects; the appraisals for our units again forced us to reduce the more costly green elements.
The development services industry – the regulators, lawyers, agencies, and bankers need to provide incentives to stimulate the housing sector.
Low Impact or Positive Impact? With population growth, development has to happen some place and all development has an impact. Even low impact development changes stormwater flows and establishes new impervious surfaces on places that were not built on before.
Most environmental laws are intended to mitigate and reduce the impacts of development. For example, when you think about how difficult it will be to stop the ongoing pollution of Puget Sound, you have to start thinking of pro-active strategies, not just migitation efforts. The more important question is: How can we improve stormwater regulations, improve habitat and at the same time improve the overall conditions for development and community?
The question we have to ask ourselves is not only how little of an impact can we have – but how do we create positive, lasting impacts? The Clearwater Commons approach is to take a seriously degraded property with blackberries and other invasive species and turn it into a positive contributor to the functions and values of the land and Lake Washington watershed we live in.
Restoring the Degraded North Creek: We’ve just finished a ¼ mile stream restoration project by working closely with government agencies and foundations. We have been fortunate to receive private, state, and federal funding to support an extensive stream restoration effort. It takes a huge investment in time and effort to get a stream restoration project to the building stage. You need an excellent engineered design, you need a community to invest time and effort, and you need to be able to follow through with invasive weed management.
Our partnership with Snohomish County Surface Water Management will be beneficial to both salmon and our ongoing education efforts. Hopefully our project will be a living laboratory on how to improve both the environment and the community.
Moving LID and Green Projects Ahead: We need to learn from the current LID experiments and determine how to apply the strategies more broadly. LID could be more effective if it is adapted to the conditions in which it is applied, and linked more directly to critical stream and watershed restoration efforts.
- Focus LID in critical watersheds: A more targeted LID expansion effort in areas where stormwater management will yield the greatest benefits will assist in the understanding and greater adoption of LID methods.
- Establish clear development standards: There needs to be clear LID development standards that can easily be adopted without challenges and deviations. These standards exist for typical developments and need to be adopted across jurisdictions.
- Develop incentives and understanding of LID and green building: There needs to be a broader introspective view by the development services industry to lower costs, provide incentives, and bank on green LID projects with a long-term future.
- Make sure LID has a positive impact: Don’t allow developers to just put in a pervious sidewalk here and a raingarden there and get credits. Make it meaningful. Look for zero discharge projects. Integrate LID into existing road projects. Use LID in public projects and right of ways. Create community ownership to maintain and support LID projects.
Fast Forward: Here we are now nearly 6 years later – we have just completed our first 4 homes and we’re having an open house on April 21st and 22nd – Earth Day Weekend from 10am -4 pm.
Our families are the most trustworthy and dedicated people you can imagine. But losses of jobs, declines in home values, make it that much more challenging to build and sell homes. We will finish the remaining units and the housing economy will rebound – but a much more concerted effort to fund quality projects needs to be made. We’re hopeful that our project will be the vanguard of developments to come.
I want to thank all of those who have been part of this, the families and supporters, and the many agency people who worked to support our LID efforts…and for the most part did. And if you are interested in learning more about us visit www.clearwatercommons.com.
Project Manager: Tom Campbell
Site and Architecture: Banyon Tree Design -Chad and Lisa Port
Civil Engineering: 2020 Engineering – Mark Buehrer/Colleen Mitchell
Wetland Biologists: The Watershed Company -Jennifer Creveling/Mark Garff
Site Development: LMH Construction – Lane Hopkins
Stream Restoration: Snohomish County Surface Water Management – Sara Stanley;
GeoEngineers (Design) – Jon Ambrose; Aquatic Contractors (Build) – Oregon
Green Homes: Cascade Built – Sloan Ritchie
Financing by Cobalt Mortgage – Terry Van Nostrand; and, Capital Resource Group – Kirkland – David Vintertun