Ron Shear and Ronda Sterley, the owners of the proposed Enumclaw Recycling Center, say they haven’t cleared more than 7,000 square feet of vegetation on their land as their grading permit makes its way through King County. However, neighbors are afraid much more than 7,000 square feet of land has already been cleared. Pictured here is an access point to Shear and Sterley’s property, cleared and covered with wood chips/hog fuel. Photo by Ray Miller-Still

Ron Shear and Ronda Sterley, the owners of the proposed Enumclaw Recycling Center, say they haven’t cleared more than 7,000 square feet of vegetation on their land as their grading permit makes its way through King County. However, neighbors are afraid much more than 7,000 square feet of land has already been cleared. Pictured here is an access point to Shear and Sterley’s property, cleared and covered with wood chips/hog fuel. Photo by Ray Miller-Still

County says contentious recycle center clearing without a permit

The proposed Enumclaw Recycling Center is still going through the permitting process, but it appears the landowners have already started clearing out their land.

A controversial recycling center outside Enumclaw is under investigation for working without a permit.

In August 2017, Ron Shear and Ronda Sterley applied to open the Enumclaw Recycling Center, a land debris and construction material recycling business, north of Enumclaw off Enumclaw-Franklin Road.

The permit, which is still being reviewed by King County’s Department of Local Services, would allow them to clear roughly 34 acres on three parcels of land to open the business.

However, Enumclaw Recycling has met vocal resistance from local nonprofits that claim it will damage the nearby environment, and point to Shear’s past business history as validation of their concerns.

Recent actions from Shear and Sterley have not assuaged these fears.

On Jan. 15, King County Code Enforcement sent Shear and Sterley a stop work order for allegedly clearing parts of their land.

Because Enumclaw Recycle is still in the permitting process, most work that is done on their land would violate county code, said Jerry Pionk, the Department of Local Services’ chief communications officer. However, there’s at least one exception.

“In this case, clearing less than 7,000 square feet is exempt from a clearing permit,” Pionk said in an email. “We are in the process of determining if the clearing has gone over the threshold.”

Pionk said that determination will likely be made when Shear and Sterley’s appeal to the stop work order is heard by a county hearing examiner. A pre-conference meeting to set up the hearing is scheduled March 25.

After that hearing is when Pionk said a code enforcement officer will be granted access to the property and determine how much land was cleared without a permit.

However, Shear and Sterley’s neighbors have made it clear they’re not pleased with how long King County’s process has taken, and believe the county has left Enumclaw Recycling an opportunity to continue doing work without a permit.

One of those neighbors is Julie Schrag, a co-chair of Friends of Bass Lake, a subcommittee under the newly formed nonprofit Enumclaw Plateau Community Association.

Schrag said in an interview that she and other neighbors have reported to the county that work was being done on Shear and Sterley’s property since the winter holiday season, at least a month before the stop work order was given.

“We’ve noticed there’s a history of, every time there’s a holiday… somebody’s out there working,” said Connie Fong, another neighbor. “He’s done substantial work back there since the stop work order was issued. He just thumbs his nose at everybody.”

Several photos of large trucks and what appeared to be an excavator were also sent to the county.

But as part of the stop work order, the county told Shear and Sterley to go back onto their property to lay down drainage and erosion control materials — otherwise known as wood chips or hog fuel — over any soil exposed by the alleged clearing.

Schrag wasn’t happy with this decision, especially because no code enforcement officer has been back on the property to inspect whether Shear and Sterley were following the county’s direction, or if they’re continuing unpermitted work.

“King County is saying he’s allowed to be in there, but nobody can know what he’s doing,” Schrag said.

All the while, Shear and Sterley have denied doing unpermitted work on their land.

In an appeal to the stop work order, sent to King County on Jan. 25, Shear and Sterley stated they have not exceeded the 7,000 square foot limit, that no significant trees were removed, and no water-impervious areas (leading to runoff) were constructed. Instead, Shear and Sterley claim they were removing storm debris and trash from along the road and clearing access points to their property, and sent photos of such to the county

“We believe that the stop work order was issued without proper reason and could affect our ability to maintain the roadways and property access in the future without being subject to civil penalties,” the letter reads. “We would like the stop work order to be reversed as no actual work was done onsite, only roadway maintenance and removal of storm debris and debris illegally dumped by others.”

If King County finds Shear and Sterley have exceeded the 7,000 square foot limit, or have cleared outside the area their permit would allow, then the county may require replanting, Pionk said.

And if Shear and Sterley continue to violate county code, he continued, they may be subject to civil penalties, fines, and a lien on their property, which could prevent Enumclaw Recycling from opening until the property is brought back into compliance and all fines paid.

But the county is far from that point, as Shear and Sterley are currently “in compliance” with the county’s procedures, Pionk added.

Neither Shear or Sterley could be reached for comment.

SPOTTY BUSINESS HISTORY

There has been vocal opposition to Enumclaw Recycling ever since the county gave notice of its permit application.

The Green River Coalition, a nonprofit preservationist group, and the Enumclaw Plateau Community Association have expressed concerns that Enumclaw Recycling will harm the environment around it, put local residents in danger of fire, and would make Enumclaw-Franklin Road — especially its intersection with State Route 169 — much more dangerous for drivers.

As for the environmental issues, group members point to Shear’s business history as proof their concerns are valid.

According to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, Shear operated an unpermitted dump site in Buckley in 1996, and only stopped after the Pierce County Solid Waste Program added Shears’ business to the county’s “Dirty Dozen” illegal dumpsite list. A Pierce County judge ruled the dump site was “a public nuisance which must be abated” in 2003, according to a health department site hazard assessment.

In a past interview, Shear said he spent years trying to work with Pierce County, but was eventually forced out of business. However, health department documents show at least two letters containing solid waste permit applications and one phone call pertaining to applying for a permit were made to Shear in 1996 – 1997, but the department never received an application.

While investigations of his Buckley business were ongoing, Shear opened Buckley Recycle Center in Auburn in 2001. In 2004, a permitting battle between Shear and King County led to the state Supreme Court ruling in the county’s favor, requiring Shear to shut down and move the business elsewhere. The current site outside Enumclaw was selected with the help of King County.

However, the Waste Action Project — now appearing to be going by the Northwest Toxic Communities Coalition — sued Shear in July 2013 for violating the federal Clean Water Act for unpermitted wastewater discharge at the Auburn site.

In 2015, court documents seemed to show the environmental watchdog and Shear came to a verbal agreement, but the King County Superior Court noted Shear appeared to be dragging his heels in enacting the settlement.

“Defendants Buckley Recycle Center… have apparently now attempted to renegotiate terms already agreed upon during mediation reflects a bad faith effort to further delay these proceedings,” the judge wrote in an Oct. 5, 2015 order. “This conduct has necessitated court intervention, wasting everyone’s time and resources for a matter that was purportedly settled six months ago.”

The case ended up being appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in January 2017, and ended when both parties signed a consent agreement, which did not include an admission of fault.

In a previous interview, Shear said Waste Action Project has a history of suing businesses around the state for profit, not to project the environment.

Pionk said the Department of Local Services is well aware of Shear and Sterley’s business history, but the department is bound by the law to accept and review permit applications on their own merit, and not on the merit of the applicants. He added this is done to protect landowners who might otherwise be discriminated against by race or sex, but can also allow other people to abuse the system.

“It’s a catch-22, but it’s part of government work,” Pionk said.

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