A new pedestrian bridge is being added to Black Diamond’s Rock Creek Bridge on Roberts Drive.
The bridge has been a topic of debate for more than two years. In April 2017, the city council had trouble deciding what sort of repairs and improvements it should receive, with parties split 2 to 3 between wanting to just repair the bridge or replacing it outright; either option would have included a pedestrian walkway, city staff said at the time.
Since the majority wanted to replace the bridge, arguing that repairs to the century-old structure would only delay the inevitable, the council decided to add the replacement project to the city’s 2018 Transportation Improvement Plan. But two members of the majority declined to run for their seats in 2017, and the third was ousted after a recall vote was supported by residents in 2018.
With a new council in place, plans shifted to just repairing the bridge, and the bid for the project was awarded to Goodfellow Bros. on Feb. 7, 2019.
According to city documents, the city has budgeted roughly $550,000 for the project. About 85 percent of the project has been funded via a grant from the State Transportation Improvement Board. An additional $46,000 coming from the developer Oakpointe, which is currently in the midst of building out Ten Trails, a housing development that’s expected to add more than 6,000 homes to Black Diamond in the next two decades.
It’s this development that has spurred the city council and staff to find ways to connect Ten Trails to the rest of the city.
“We want to try and link the city, not ‘that’s new town, that’s old town, and nary the two shall meet,’” said city Public Works Director Seth Boettcher. “It’s a desire to hold the city together, not have the new city and the old city separate.”
Roberts Drive will be one of the main roads that connects the two parts of Black Diamond — Ten Trails residents would use this road to drive or walk to the Black Diamond library, the Black Diamond Museum, or access state Route 169, while residents in the rest of the city are expected to use Roberts Drive to attend Ten Trails events and visit its parks and eventual commercial center.
Not only will Goodfellow Bros. add the pedestrian bridge, but will also put up a cement barrier separating the pedestrian bridge from the road, complete road repairs, widen the east-bound lane, add stormwater improvements, and install street lighting.
Boettcher said the whole project should be complete in roughly two months.
NO SEPA REVIEW
While many are likely looking forward to the added safety measures on Roberts Drive, at least one person expressed concern that the project was deemed by the city to be exempt from the State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA, process.
SEPA requires municipalities, counties, and state agencies to identify and evaluate “the potential adverse environmental impacts of a proposal” as well as give the public a chance to officially comment on a project, the Washington State Department of Natural Resource’s website reads.
The SEPA process ends with one of three determinations: that a project will not affect the environment (a Determination of Nonsignificance, or DNS); that it will affect the environment and mitigations measures should be put in place (a Mitigated Determination of Nonsignificance, or MDNS); or that there will be significant effects to the environment (Determination of Significance, or DS) and the project may be subject to a more extensive Environmental Impact Statement for further public comment and agency review.
In a September 2018 memo, Boettcher and Barb Kincaid, the city’s Community Development Director, wrote that Washington code allows for many portions of the project — widening the road, adding street lights, and building a pedestrian bridge — are considered “minor new construction” and is exempt from going through the SEPA process. The memo added they conferred with the city’s legal department, which agreed with their conclusions.
But two state agencies, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Ecology, wrote emails to the city stating they disagree with their analysis of state code.
Larry Fisher, a WFDW biologist, wrote on Feb. 8 that this project is not SEPA-exempt because “the project involves a material expansion of the existing bridge or a new bridge. The impacts on the watercourse and its critical areas buffer must be identified and addressed through the SEPA review process.”
Meg Bommarito, a Department of Ecology regional planner, wrote in a Feb. 25, 2019 email that projects involving a bridge over water are not exempt from the SEPA process because “it is undertaken on lands covered by water even if there are not any planned construction activities or permanent structures to the stream bed. The bridge itself is a permanent structure located above the water and will have direct and ongoing impacts to that environment — which is the intent of this exception language for the minor new construction exemption.”
Larry Altose, Ecology’s northwest region’s communications manager, said in a recent interview that the agency continues to believe the bridge project requires SEPA review because the project involves construction over water.
However, “while Ecology adopts statewide SEPA rulemaking, and provides training and guidance, we do not have authority to require SEPA compliance,” he continued, adding that disagreements between lead agencies and Ecology “are rare.”
This means Black Diamond is what’s known as the “lead agency” in this project, meaning it alone makes the determination whether a project is or is not SEPA-exempt, and there is no oversight agency or appeal process.
That being said, Boettcher made it clear that just because the project did not go through the SEPA process doesn’t mean Black Diamond or Goodfellow Bros. are being environmentally unsafe.
“We’re not going to let sawdust or stuff trickle into the creek,” he said, pointing out that silt walls have been set up to prevent erosion and catchments underneath where the pedestrian bridge will be installed. “They have to put some type of protections [up] so they’re not getting any construction debris in the water.”
He added that going through an unnecessary SEPA process would have delayed the project and cost taxpayers more money.