Dozens come to support hardware store
December 7, 2012
By Caleb Heeringa
Council to make decision next week
New: Dec. 7, 1:55 p.m.
With more than 80 Sammamish residents in the audience chomping at the bit to sing the praises of their local hardware store, Mayor Tom Odell attempted to begin the Dec. 4 City Council meeting but could not get his microphone to work.
“Ace Hardware can fix it,” someone shouted from the crowd.
The supporters were called there at the behest of Ace owner Tim Koch, who is trying to rally support for a proposed development of a new building on 228th Avenue in between the Starbucks and Washington Federal bank development and Mars Hill Church. Koch’s business will be forced to relocate in August 2013 after failing to reach a deal for a new lease for its space in Sammamish Highlands shopping center, where it’s been for 20 years.
For more than two hours, Sammamish residents spoke about how much they valued having a community-run hardware store on the plateau rather than having to drive to Issaquah or Redmond. Koch is a longtime Sammamish resident, as are most of the 25 employees that work at Ace.
“We can’t live without Ace,” Sammamish resident Donna Luepnitz said. “The staff is friendly and knowledgeable and they help us a great deal.”
Koch has been working with developers and city staff since talks with Regency fell apart more than a year ago. A plan earlier this year to locate Ace on a parcel of land in the proposed Town Center zone just south of Eastside Catholic fell apart.
The new proposed location is outside the Town Center boundaries, but comes with an entirely different set of problems – some of which would require action by the City Council.
The land is currently zoned for office use. Community Development Director Kamuron Gurol said the city’s code allows some retail uses in office zones, such as a florist or drive-through coffee stand, but nothing that draws the level of traffic or semi-truck deliveries as a hardware store. The council could elect to change its code to allow such uses in office zones, something Councilmember Don Gerend said he supported.
“When we did the original zoning, there was little land in the city where you could build an office,” Gerend said. “Since then we’ve done the Town Center plan, which added up to 600,000 square feet of space that could be office – (the proposed site) is of lesser importance (as office space) now.”
The proposal also calls for the city to swap a piece of land containing two storm water ponds with a piece of land owned by Elliott Severson, a Bellevue resident who developed the Starbucks property to the north. Severson’s property is almost totally covered by buffers preventing development because of the proximity of George Davis Creek, which has begun seeing returns of Lake Sammamish Kokanee salmon in recent years. The city’s property has some buildable area, but is still highly constrained by environmental buffers from the creek and wetlands on the Mars Hill Church property.
Community Development Director Kamuron Gurol said a swap is possible, but would require legal review to make sure the city is receiving a comparable value in the new property – a requirement of state law.
But the environmental issues could pose a bigger problem. Based on the city’s records, Gurol estimated that as much as 80 percent of the city-owned property is covered by environmental buffers, though a more thorough survey of the property will have to be done if development were to move forward. Based on that calculation, the 48,000 square foot piece of land would not even be able to fit the proposed 10,800-square-foot hardware store, much less the pavement of the surrounding parking lot and loading area.
Michael Reed, a Sammamish resident who helped put together the proposal, said he is confident that Gurol and the city have enough leeway in the critical areas regulations to make the project work. He said they had no plans to include structured parking in the design.
“It’s a tight squeeze but we can make it fit,” Reed said in an interview.
Charles Klinge, a land use attorney working on the project, argued to the council that despite the critical areas concerns, the proposal would actually be a net benefit to the creek and surrounding wetlands. He said the privately owned property the city would be taking over would eventually be developed anyways despite being entirely covered by a critical areas buffer, since state law entitles a landowner to “reasonable use” of his property. Gurol said the courts have yet to rule on what constitutes a “reasonable use” on commercially zoned property.
“(Severson) is going to put something there, whether through a reasonable use process or through a lawsuit,” Klinge told the council. “That site is closer to the stream and would eat up even more of the buffer.”
Gurol said cutting too many corners could leave the city open to legal challenges and accusations of “spot zoning” – a dreaded word in land use circles.
“I’ve heard a lot of concerns and criticism about the city being too ‘process-oriented’ tonight,” he said. “I’m afraid that being a city we have to take those steps under the law.”
John Galvin, a longtime critic of the city’s Town Center Plan who was involved in the earlier failed Ace development proposal, echoed those concerns. Galvin is asking the City Council to approve more density on property owned by he and his neighbors and contribute more city funds to storm water ponds and parking structures in Town Center.
“There’s something called equal rights under the law,” Galvin said. “You need to apply your legal decisions equally – they cannot apply for some and not for others.”
Gurol also combatted accusations that the city had been standing in the way of Ace’s attempts to relocate, estimating that city staff had spent “hundreds and hundreds” of hours working with Ace over the past year. The city has not charged Koch or his associates for that time, though a typical development proposal would be billed.
Gurol said he’s hopeful that the project can work, though the tight deadline for action will be a challenge. Koch and his associates are asking for the proposal to be fast-tracked so that construction can begin in February and March and completed in July so that Ace can move before its lease expires at the end of August.
“A lot of things have to happen right,” Gurol said. “I joke that if this project had a Facebook status it would be ‘It’s complicated.’ It has significant challenges and a very constrained time frame in which to work.”
The City Council is scheduled to decide whether to fast-track the Ace proposal at its Dec. 11 meeting.
Reporter Caleb Heeringa can be reached at 392-6434. ext. 247, or firstname.lastname@example.org.