Land swap could change face of Puyallup habitat

SUSAN GORDON; The News Tribune
Published: November 26th, 2005 02:30 AM

© The News Tribune, Tacoma, WA


DREW PERINE/THE NEWS TRIBUNE Emerald Ridge High School students Jessica Henning, 18, left, and Jennifer Houk, 17, take water samples this week at Horse Haven Creek, a tributary to the Puyallup River on South Hill. Some residents wonder what will become of the watershed if houses are built nearby.

A state plan to swap 320 acres of publicly owned timberland on South Hill with a housing developer is raising questions about the fate of a little-known Puyallup River tributary that crosses the property.

Horse Haven Creek meanders from a beaver pond near Emerald Ridge High School down the hill to the river near Orting.

“Horse Haven Creek is a jewel, and there’s a lot more environmental value there than most people would think,” said South Hill resident Betsy Stubbs.

Stubbs, who is co-chairwoman of the South Hill Community Council, is among several people who wonder what will happen to the creek if Investco Financial Corp. builds homes there. Another is Emerald Ridge science teacher Gary Hibbs, who regularly takes students on walks to the creek to collect water samples and examine insects.

The state Department of Natural Resources recently announced plans to exchange the land for Investco property in King County.

Investco proposes to trade about 11/2 acres near the intersection of Highway 99 and Kent-Des Moines Road, where builders are now putting up a Walgreens drug store.

The forestland – in two parcels crossed by the creek – is located south of the Sunrise subdivision and southwest of the Pierce County Airport. The land belongs to the state’s public schools. In the past, DNR managers have sold the timber to help pay for school construction projects.

Loggers last cut trees from the property in 1999, said DNR spokeswoman Jane Chavey.

In 1984, the state Board of Natural Resources, which governs state land management activities, and the Legislature authorized the department to designate the two parcels and other properties for future auction or exchange because of their proximity to urban areas, she said. The land is zoned for as many as three houses per acre.

The proposed exchange for the Walgreens site is expected to yield about $480,000 annually in drug store lease payments, which will benefit schools. “It always has to be in the best interest of the trust,” Chavey said.

Brian McCabe, Investco vice president, said his company has no firm development objectives for the forestland.

“We have no immediate plans right now. It’s a long-term hold investment. There’s going to be a lot of planning involved. It’s way out in the future.”

Investco, based in Sumner, developed the Lakeland Hills subdivision south of Auburn.

Concerns about the future of the DNR property were first raised earlier this year when the South Hill Advisory Commission, a land-use group, and the Pierce County Planning Commission rejected a different developer’s plan for the same area.

That proposal, called Sunrise East, encompassed 400 acres, including the DNR land. The proposed master planned community had the official blessing of County Executive John Ladenburg and would have allowed construction of as many as 1,300 homes.

Skip Stansbury, a special assistant to Ladenburg, said he’s talked to McCabe about the DNR land, but no commitments have been made. “We’ve had some preliminary conversations with them. They want to pursue roughly what the previous developers were doing,” he said.

The idea of another major housing development upsets some people. “The last thing South Hill needs are more houses,” said Stubbs, though she acknowledged that houses will be permitted if developers comply with regulations.

Whatever happens, Stubbs said she wants to make sure that the creek is treated gently.

Allen Zulauf, a Puyallup resident and past chairman of the Puyallup River Watershed Council, said the creek is important to the watershed and to salmon.

He posed questions he believes should be answered before development takes place: “Is there an adequate buffer to protect water quality? What kind of practices are going to be applied?”

Bruce Lachney, an Eatonville-area resident who sits on the Planning Commission, said officials ought to delay the land exchange to further consider its impact.

Although the land swap would bring in revenue for school construction, development risks the loss of less tangible, ecological benefits, such as water quality, he said.

Horse Haven Creek is a sensitive area, said Lachney, who works as a commercial pilot and has flown over the site many times. While most of the surrounding land has been logged and replanted, state land managers have conserved vegetation around the creek, Lachney said.

How to get involved

A public hearing on the proposed South Hill land swap is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Emerald Ridge High School, 12405 184th St. E., South Hill.

Written testimony also may be submitted by Dec. 13 to the State Department of Natural Resources, Asset Management & Protection Division, ATTN: Land Exchange Number 86-077957, P.O. Box 47014, Olympia, WA 98504-7014.