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Wednesday, February 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Group protests plan for gravel on former wetlands

MILL CREEK — An environmental group is asking the city to reconsider a company's plan to dump gravel on a former wetlands area, saying the act would forever prevent rehabilitation of the land.

The developer and the city contend the wetlands were destroyed by mining that took place long ago.

Pacific Topsoils, which has been mining peat at the site near Thomas Lake and Penny Creek since the 1940s, is selling the property to Mill Creek East, which plans to build about 220 single-family homes and town houses on the land.

Pacific Topsoils has agreed to clean up the land before the transaction is complete, including removing about 265,000 cubic yards of concrete, wood chips and other material. Pacific Topsoils, which sells gardening soil and recycles yard and commercial waste, had used the mix to fill in the areas mined for peat. A fill that can be built on, such as gravel and granule dirt, is proposed to replace the old fill.

The new fill is being put in for the developer, but the cleanup of the old fill would have to be done even if Pacific Topsoils didn't sell the property, city officials said.

Tom Murdoch, executive director of the Adopt-a-Stream Foundation at the Northwest Stream Center outside Mill Creek, is taking issue with the proposed fill. Murdoch said he agrees that the old, unnatural fill needs to be removed. But he also believes this is an opportunity to turn a large portion of the site back into a wetlands area.

He has appealed Pacific Topsoils' permit to excavate and refill the site.

"If they replace it with buildable fill, we've permanently lost an opportunity to restore the wetlands," Murdoch said. "If they remove that fill, the area where water is stored becomes larger. And they could restore many of the wetlands functions through planting vegetation."

Murdoch is proposing that the developer build the homes on a smaller area. "They could redesign the housing project for a multiple-story houses on smaller lots," he said.

City officials say Mill Creek East already has agreed to do more than is required by law. The land has been disfigured by the peat mining, which started long before current environmental regulations were in place, said Carry Hornbein, Mill Creek's senior planner. The developer's reclamation plan will improve conditions, she said.

According to plans the developer has submitted to the city, a wetlands greenbelt would be planted along 35th Avenue Southeast. And the gravel fill would hold back some rainfall, she said.

"There is an opportunity to restore the land, but they are not legally required to do it," Hornbein said. "The developer is protecting the existing wetlands on the site. They are meeting our requirements for the wetlands."

Murdoch said there is a larger picture to consider. Pacific Topsoils' land is part of a watershed that drains into North Creek. He believes more of the wetlands and peat bog should be restored to filter and store water that feeds into surrounding creeks, habitat for salmon and trout.

"If the project goes in, by itself it doesn't kill off the salmon," Murdoch said. "No single project is the death knell for the salmon run. What I'm looking at is the cumulative effect of development."

Wetlands filter out pollution, Murdoch said. The soggy soil also absorbs water during winter months and slowly releases it during summer months. The habitats are getting inched out by development, he said.

John Nelson, a civil-engineering consultant for Mill Creek East, said Murdoch's ideas to limit the development's space aren't viable.

Adopt-a-Stream's appeal has slowed the project by a month or two, but plans are still moving forward, Nelson said. Mill Creek East hopes to begin construction in about a year. Until then, Pacific Topsoils' operations will continue, said David Forman, the topsoil company's owner.

Pacific Topsoils realized it was time to move out of Mill Creek as the area filled with homes and property values rose, Forman said.

The Mill Creek operations will be absorbed by Pacific Topsoils' 14 other locations in Snohomish and King counties.

Rachel Tuinstra: 425-783-0674 or rtuinstra@seattletimes.com

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