The Kent City Council is poised to make a decision that could have negative impacts on an ecologically fragile wetlands area in southern King County.
On March 16, the Kent City Council is scheduled to decide whether to approve a change in a comprehensive plan that would allow a Bellevue-based development company to build 150 townhouses in an area known as Bridges.
The proposed land-use change, and subsequent 150 townhouses, by Oakpointe Communities of Bellevue has generated significant controversy among local residents. They say multiple issues are at stake.
They believe the new development will have a major negative impact on the surrounding wetlands, which are home to many native plants and animals. It will also add traffic congestion in an area on Lea Hill where four other construction projects are already in progress.
Moreover, the land-use changes may violate Kent city codes. They potentially follow vesting rules that have expired, possibly opening the city of Kent up for lawsuits in the future.
Kent and Auburn residents also believe the city of Kent failed to follow its own codes that call for it to provide proper public notice regarding the change-use application. This could leave the city of Kent vulnerable to lawsuits from residents of both Kent and nearby Auburn.
At issue is a 13.2-acre site within a 155-acre area of Lea Hill in southern King County called Bridges. The proposed development would be located at the corner of 124th Avenue Southeast between Southeast 288th and Southeast 304th streets.
The Bridges is an approximately 380-home development that is a “municipal island” in the city of Kent, but is surrounded on all sides by Auburn. Because the two cities are in negotiations that would allow Auburn to annex Bridges, the proposed annexation is a related issue that local residents are also concerned about.
On March 2, the Kent City Council voted 4-3 vote against amending the Bridges PUD’s comprehensive plan to allow townhouses on the 13.2-acre site. However, in a questionable move after the vote, the City Council decided to reexamine the Oakpointe proposal at its March 16 meeting.
Local residents believe the development should not be approved, and many spoke out against it at the March 2 council meeting. In addition, more than 530 Lea Hill residents have signed an online petition asking the city to reject the proposed land-use changes.
May Violate Washington Growth Management Act
As noted, several issues are at play here.
For one, the proposal follows 17-year-old wetlands buffer rules that were in effect when the Bridges comprehensive plan was developed in 2004. This proposal may be in violation of the Washington Growth Management Act (MGA). That is a state law that requires state and local governments to manage Washington’s growth by identifying and protecting critical areas and natural resources lands, preparing comprehensive plans, and implementing them through development regulations.
Relying on the old codes, as Oakpointe proposes with its revised plan, would allow construction in sensitive areas of the Bridges wetlands, among the last remaining wetlands in the area and the home to numerous native plants and animals. Wetlands buffers now in place mandate building no closer than 150 feet from wetlands rather than the 25 feet in the earlier codes.
Further intrusion into their environment by construction, as the Oakpointe proposal permits, would place additional stress on native plant and wildlife habitats.
Lea Hill residents have already seen cougars, bears, deer, and coyotes in residential areas. The new development would further impact human-animal conflict (residents have reported the disappearance of small pets thought to have been killed by wild animals).
No Plans for 150 Townhouses Originally
Oakpointe’s original plans for the corner called for assisted-living housing and a limited number of drive-through businesses. It had no plans for the 150 townhouses it now wants to build. This could lead to legal problems for Kent, and possibly Auburn if it annexes Bridges.
The developer has submitted multiple changes to the Bridges comprehensive plan since its inception; some have been approved, some denied. The most recent was 2010, when the developer and Kent came to a settlement that avoided a court battle. The two agreed as part of the settlement that the developer would drop its court case if its revised application for the commercial property was eventually approved by the council.
Brian Ross, a spokesman for Oakpointe, said at a Feb. 21 meeting with Bridges residents that the current economic environment was not conducive to developing businesses. However, on April 1, the company has an amendment before the Covington City Council for the development of more businesses and homes at the Lakepointe development.
Aside from the code issues, the city of Kent apparently failed to comply with public notice requirements for the new development. Lea Hill residents were not given legal notice of Oakpointe’s application, made June 7, 2019. This appears to violate Kent City codes (KCC 12.01). These require notice of proposed changes must be mailed and published.
The mailed notices were not done within the required time frames, giving the public little time to respond, and failed to include all owners within 300 feet of the proposed development. Kent also published notices of the proposed changes in the Kent Reporter newspaper, which Auburn residents, including those living in Bridges, do not get.
This has been further exacerbated by the fact that Oakpointe – as it should have – has not transferred the open area tracts to the Living at Bridges Homeowners Association (HOA), the Bridges operating entity. Oakpointe, rather than Bridges residents, received those notices.
Annexation to Auburn
Regarding the proposed annexation of Bridges into Auburn: This is an ongoing saga that concerns many Bridges and Lea Hill residents.
For one, as an “island” of Kent, away from the rest of the city proper, the community rarely, if ever, receives police protection. Numerous residents report making repeated calls to the Kent police about drag racing, drug deals, and the like; these calls have allegedly been met with indifference, if at all, by the Kent police department.
With Auburn surrounding the Bridges – and Auburn police patrolling nearby neighborhoods regularly – the Bridges streets and homes would be much safer if annexed into Auburn.
Kent Mayor Dana Ralph wrote in a letter to Bridges residents that “the city of Auburn has decided to end its joint effort with the City of Kent to annex The Bridges neighborhood.” On Feb. 21, at an outdoor meeting with some Bridges residents, Mayor Ralph said that annexation talks were back on the table with Auburn. The city of Auburn maintains that it was a mutual agreement and not a unilateral decision by Auburn. (watch, 3:42:30)
The major dispute seems to be what it will cost the city of Kent to bring the Bridges infrastructure up to Auburn standards. On Feb. 23, at a Kent Committee of the Whole meeting, Mayor Ralph said, “We’re not going to invest $1 million to give them away.” (watch, 36:50)
This is premature: There is no way to know what those costs would be. The Bridges HOA owns and maintains all but two streets and the city owns the wetland areas and ponds. Auburn has not yet received all maintenance records to determine costs. A public records request was submitted for these items last week, and the city has replied that it could take 30 days or more to provide them. A public records request was submitted for these items last week, but the city has replied that it could take 30 days or more to provide them.
In a statement released to the Kent Reporter on March 6, the city of Auburn said, “We remain hopeful and committed to continue this discussion, and that we will be able to come up with creative solutions that create the best outcomes for all involved.”
Lea Hill residents who want to voice their opinion on the proposed Bridge land-use changes may comment during the upcoming March 16 meeting. To speak, they must register with the Kent city clerk at CityClerk@KentWA.gov by 4PM on the day of the meeting.