By Doug Hamar
Fellow citizens of Monroe, you are about to lose a crown jewel, and it will be snatched away under the cover of darkness the day after Christmas.
More than 40 years ago, the city of Monroe had the foresight to annex 68 acres of farmland east of town for the purpose of—in the words of Monroe’s current comprehensive plan—”protecting the City’s scenic gateway from the east along US-2 and to prevent the proliferation of strip commercial uses along US 2.”
Since that time, the property has had a Low Density (5 acre) Residential zoning. The largest part of the property lies within an old oxbow of the Skykomish River, and much of it is protected shoreline and wetlands. For this reason, as the Growth Management Act became law in the early 1990s, the property acquired the further protection of “Limited Open Space,” defined in Monroe’s Municipal Code as:
The purpose of the limited open space zoning district is to provide for low-density residential uses on lands that lack the full range of public services and facilities necessary to support urban development and that are severely impacted by critical areas. This zone also provides a buffer between urban areas and transitional land uses on the urban growth boundaries of the city, and/or may also provide for enhanced recreational facilities and linkages to existing trails or open space systems.
With Monroe awash in vacant retail space and infamous for its traffic congestion, the last thing Monroe needs is another retail shopping center a mile out of town and the traffic congestion that a roundabout on this stretch of US-2 would generate. Unfortunately, that is exactly what will be signed into law on Dec. 26.
In the late 1990s, the oxbow, the accompanying slough, and a few additional acres to the east were purchased by Heritage Baptist Fellowship—ostensibly believing it was a great site for a church. This oxbow and surrounding property is subject to frequent and sometimes severe flooding, and sits along a 55-mph stretch of US 2 from which there is no safe access for any significant number of vehicles. Clearly, there are staggering challenges to building anything on the property.
Over the years, Heritage Baptist Fellowship has made repeated attempts to have this particular real estate investment rezoned as General Commercial. Up until their most recent effort, which began this last August, those attempts have been unsuccessful—common sense has prevailed.
Last year, in contrast to previous city administrations, Mayor Zimmerman, with a friendly majority on the City Council, pushed the rezone and required Comprehensive Plan change through under the guise of “property rights” and needed economic development. That decision was overturned on appeal by the well-respected and experienced Hearings Examiner, John Galt. Mr. Galt found the City’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the rezone wholly “inadequate.”
Curiously, Mr. Galt’s contract as Monroe’s Hearings Examiner was shortly thereafter terminated. This year, Heritage Baptist Fellowship and the city came back with a 200-page, professionally produced, EIS that augmented last year’s inadequate information with a sufficient amount of misinformation to impress the new Hearings Examiner enough so that he let the city’s acceptance of the EIS prevail.
Last week, my neighborhood group filed for reconsideration, pointing out the many instances where the Hearings Examiner had been taken in by misinformation. This document, along with most of the documentation presented to the city concerning this affair over the last couple of years, is available on the City of Monroe’s website under “East Monroe.” I encourage any and all interested parties to check it out.
At this point in time, if the Hearings Examiner’s decision on reconsideration is issued before Christmas, the City Council has scheduled an emergency meeting the day after Christmas (not their regularly scheduled time) to take action on the rezone. There is no emergency here. This scheduling is a clear violation of the spirit of the law, if not the law itself, which requires the city to encourage and accommodate input from citizens.
In my opinion, this property—under its current zoning—has tremendous potential for attracting thousands of visitors to Monroe and channeling them into the old downtown area. Imagine, for example, the following:
1. A walkable wildlife refuge with connecting trails to Al Borlin Park
2. A world class disc golf course connected by trails to two additional disc golf courses planned for the Monroe area, one in Al Borlin Park, the other at the old Monroe golf course on Old Owen Road. This could make Monroe a mecca for international tournaments and the local destination for a family-friendly and popular sport.
3. A cluster of four elevated, energy self-sufficient, flood-proof demonstration homes, surrounded by fenced organic gardens, in turn surrounded by a walkable wildlife refuge with connecting trails to Al Borlin Park.
4. Some combination of the above.
Access to Al Borlin Park is, of course, through Old Town Monroe.
There are many dozens of independent studies that examine exactly the kind of big box retail center envisioned for this rezone—located as it will be—outside a small town. They all conclude that such development eliminates more jobs than it creates, forfeits more tax dollars than it generates, and drains the community of both its wealth and its character.
With that in mind, I would think Walmart and other big retailers with properties in downtown Monroe, as a gesture of good will to the community and to protect their own investments, would join with land conservation, wildlife, and/or disc golf interests to buy the East Monroe property as currently zoned and relieve the present owners of their financial hardship.
Please contact your council members today and urge them to act responsibly by postponing their decision on this important and controversial issue until the council’s regularly scheduled meeting on Jan. 7.