One year ago, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and King County Executive Dow Constantine knelt with schoolchildren to release kokanee salmon fry into a Sammamish creek and celebrate a $300,000 habitat-restoration project.
Down to about 50 spawning fish in 2008, the kokanee, a relative of the sockeye that spends its entire life in fresh water, made a stirring recovery in 2012 with more than 14,000 returning to Lake Sammamish tributaries, about 4,500 of those to Ebright Creek.
But at the top of the creek’s steep ravine, where it rises to the Sammamish Plateau, a developer has proposed a 30-home subdivision on 85 acres with a bridge spanning the creek. The builder, William E. Buchan, has received preliminary approval from the city of Sammamish to construct houses on an 8-acre open space and wildlife corridor the city in 2001 required be set aside as a condition for Buchan to develop an adjoining subdivision, Chestnut Estates.
“If we don’t protect the watershed, we lose the capacity to support a spawning population of fish. The creek dies by a thousand cuts,” said Wally Pereyra, a fish biologist who owns 25 acres off East Lake Sammamish Parkway and who privately financed the habitat-restoration project where the creek runs through his land.
Pereyra is challenging Sammamish’s recommended preliminary approval of the new subdivision before a city hearing examiner. He says the developer should have been required to do a full environmental review to better analyze the potential effects on the stream.
The traffic, bridge construction and removal of trees and vegetation, he argues, could increase stormwater runoff and the risk of landslides, threatening the kokanee eggs laid each fall along the creek bottom.
He also says Buchan should not be allowed to swap the existing open space for a new one which, Pereyra says, is more fragmented and provides less habitat protection.
Homeowners in Chestnut Estates are also asking why the city didn’t seek a full environmental review, which they say would better gauge the impact from additional traffic. They note that their development was built with narrow roads, no streetlights and with sidewalks on just one side. Under Buchan’s plans for the new subdivision, they say, their street, which now stops in a cul-de-sac, would become a thoroughfare to a new neighborhood.
Usha Kishinchandani, whose family was among the first to move into the subdivision in 2011, told the hearing examiner, “The representative from Buchan homes told us it would be a small, exclusive community where our kids could play outside safely. That’s what we bought into,” she said.
Officials with William E. Buchan, a prominent Eastside developer of high-end homes, say Chestnut Estates West sets aside 40 acres of open space, more than the 50 percent required in Sammamish’s zoning for the area.
Greg Nelson, land-development director for William E. Buchan, recently told the hearing examiner that the company tried to buy property that would allow another way in to the subdivision, to avoid building a bridge across the ravine. It wasn’t successful. Now, he said, the company plans a twin-truss bridge to carry traffic in and out of the new development.
“We’re proposing to do the crossing with the least amount of impacts on the ravine and the sensitive, critical areas adjacent to it,” he said.
While Pereyra and the Chestnut Estates neighbors are challenging the preliminary approval of the development, Buchan is questioning the city’s requirement that the bridge be 180 feet long, with its foundations outside of the ravine’s 15-foot buffers. Buchan wants to build a 150-foot span with foundations anchored inside the top of the ravine, said Evan Maxim, senior land-use planner for Sammamish.
Opponents to the new development have also argued that allowing Buchan to develop the open space would set a precedent for the builder to again construct houses on land Buchan says would be reserved as part of the open-space requirement.
Maxim said, “We share some of those concerns.” Because of that possibility, the city is recommending that Buchan deed the new open space to the city so it cannot be developed in the future. Buchan is asking to retain ownership of a portion of the open space.
Maxim said the city is following city and state critical-area regulations meant to protect the stream’s water quality and the ravine’s steep slopes. Sammamish is recommending the developer leave buffers of 150 feet from the edge of the creek bank. No home could be built closer than 60 feet from the edge of the ravine, he said.
The hearing began April 22. A final decision on the subdivision’s approval isn’t expected until June.
The hearing examiner, John Galt, noted during his opening remarks that the evidence includes two banker boxes of exhibits, five days of witness testimony and more than 1,100 pages of written comments.
The decision can be appealed to King County Superior Court.
That there’s a challenge at all is largely due to Pereyra, a founding member of the Lake Sammamish Kokanee Work Group who has dedicated himself to preserving and protecting the native salmon from extinction.
Pereyra, 78, holds a doctorate in fisheries from the University of Washington. He bought his house in 1973, across the street from Lake Sammamish, in part to raise his three children in what was then rural countryside, but also because of the stream.
After 42 years, he said, “It’s part of who I am. I’ve become the shepherd of Ebright Creek.” He also says he’s been blessed with a good income. He is a partner in several commercial fishing boats in Alaska. The return has allowed him to restore the creek and finance challenges to new development.
David St. John, who coordinates the kokanee work group as government relations administrator for the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, called Pereyra “one of the staunchest supporters” of the kokanee recovery efforts.
“He’s a fisheries biologist, he owns considerable property along Ebright Creek, he’s willing to invest his own money to restore habitat and advocate for the watershed, and he’s a smart, determined guy.”
Pereyra’s restored, 1936 house stands just feet from the stream on a flat expanse of pasture land that rises steeply into woods. He said a previous owner had poured a concrete patio over the stream around a 20-inch pipe. For decades, he said, only a few fish could navigate the narrow opening.
In 2011 a shallow landslide on the hill sent a slurry of mud pouring down the ravine. It smothered the salmon redds deposited the previous fall, wiping out an entire season. Pereyra, who had been hoping for government action to remove the culvert on his property, decided to start the stream reclamation project himself, in exchange for city, county, state and federal officials promising to expedite the often lengthy permitting process.
He finished the work in July 2012, just weeks before what would be the record run of kokanee. The fish swam under a new, arching stone bridge, more than half a mile up the canyon, past Chestnut Estates, further up the creek than they had ever been before, Pereyra said.
“They came by. They waved their fins. I was elated. It was the culmination of years of work,” he said.
Pereyra can describe the effects of development on his stream over the years: Increased water flow in winter from more impervious surfaces shedding stormwater; algae blooms in summer from over-fertilized lawns. Loss of trees and other vegetation reduces the shade along the creek banks and increases the chance of landslides.
About the developer’s proposal, he said, “They’ve completely removed the wildlife corridor. They’re building houses and a bridge on the edge of the ravine. It increases the risk of a landslide. That’s a big concern, that all my work to restore the creek could be wiped out.”