Sewage Is Lesser `Evil' -- Woodway Would Rather See Treatment Plant, Not Houses

WOODWAY - Folks in this forested enclave have fought hard to preserve their thickets of fir and hemlock from the chain saws of developers. So you'd think you could predict their reaction to 54 million gallons a day of raw sewage winding up next door.

Pew, right? Nope. Here, given the choice between sewage and more people, the preference is clear: More new neighbors would be the stinker.

So while other Puget Sound-area communities get nervous at the thought of King County's proposed $400 million sewage-treatment plant winding up in their back yards, this Snohomish County town of 990 has put out the welcome mat.

Town leaders want King County to consider building the facility at Point Wells, a waterfront site in South Snohomish County west of bluffs boasting some of the ritziest homes in this largely well-to-do town.

Although any decision on the site is a few years away, the fact that Woodway jumped at the possibility is a measure of just how eager the town is to hedge itself off from the growing urban clatter that threatens its slogan, "The Quiet Place."

It does seem quieter under the canopy of trees the town has left standing in stark contrast to the parking lots and high-rise apartments that dot nearby communities.

"It's a great place; it's a very calming environment," said Carla Nichols, a town councilwoman who leads a citizens committee studying Point Wells.

The way sewage-treatment plants are built these days, padded with parks, wetlands and marinas, they can be the sort of good neighbor that folks in Woodway desire, she said.

"People conjure up in their minds a waste-treatment plant, and they think of gray buildings and fumes. They're not that bad," Nichols said.

Plant for two counties

The treatment plant proposed by King County Executive Ron Sims would serve North King County and parts of South Snohomish County around Bothell and Mill Creek. The Metropolitan King County Council hasn't voted yet whether to build a plant or just expand existing ones at Renton and in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood. The council could vote next month.

Even if the new facility gets the go-ahead, Point Wells would be only one of several sites considered in North King-South Snohomish counties, said Christie True, program manager for capital-facilities planning in King County's waste-water-treatment division. Selection of a site could take a year or two, she said.

But Woodway isn't waiting around. In a survey last year, more than 60 percent of the Woodway residents who responded said they'd favor a treatment plant on Point Wells over a mix of housing, industrial and business development. More than 200 residents took part in the survey.

The treatment plant seems like a good idea to Peggy Johnstone, who lives next to Point Wells in a rambler with a spectacular view of Puget Sound.

Lesser of two evils

"I think if they build houses there, it will be the end of an era. It will be a sad day." Johnstone said. "The treatment plant is the lesser of two evils."

But in Shoreline, just south of Point Wells, leaders aren't as thrilled.

"It's easy for Woodway to say `Sure, bring it on here,' " said King County Councilwoman Maggi Fimia, who represents the Shoreline area. "They wouldn't have to bear any of the consequences."

The only access road to Point Wells winds through Shoreline's northern neighborhoods, and some residents there are worried about the concentrated construction traffic such a massive project would bring. Residents in Magnolia raised similar concerns about truck traffic when Metro expanded its secondary-treatment plant there in the early 1990s.

For now the Point Wells site is home to a Chevron asphalt plant, and a company spokesman said there are no plans to sell.

But Shoreline has drawn up plans to annex the area someday and allow residential and commercial development there, which would be an economic boon to the city.

The thought of condos and new housing encroaching on Woodway's views of Puget Sound sends shudders through the town, where the fight to stave off development goes back years.

From the beginning, Woodway has worked to insulate itself from the nuisances of city life.

The town traces its roots to the exclusive estates of Woodway Park, founded in 1912 by Seattle businessman David Whitcomb.

Whitcomb thought the city was no place for a well-to-do gentleman's family. In a history of Woodway, he wrote of being "cramped by undesirable neighbors, hemmed in by piles of brick and stone . . . and smothered by the smoke and fog and noise that thousands of fellow citizens inevitably necessitate."

Seeking more genteel surroundings, Whitcomb bought 320 acres between Edmonds and Richmond Beach, and built an enormous sandstone mansion with spacious lawns and a saltwater swimming pool. He sold the remaining land to like-minded folk, specifying in the deeds that only people of "the white or Caucasian race" were allowed to live there, with the exception of servants.

The original racial restrictions are unconstitutional and no longer apply.

In 1958, wary of rapid growth in Edmonds and Shoreline, residents incorporated. To have the population of 400 then required to form a legal town, Woodway added a few more middle-class neighborhoods.

The town has remained small, just one square mile in area, with no apartments or businesses. The income bracket with the largest number of residents is the over $100,000 category, according to the last census.

And the town's history of wealth remains visible in the palatial homes hidden behind hedgerows and fir trees. The median home price in Woodway was estimated at $650,000 last year by Worth magazine.

But Mayor Jan Taylor Drummond said it's the coziness of the community, not the wealth of some residents, that sets it apart.

"The citizens here share the same values. We have little town meetings and people show up," Drummond said. "We operate like small-town America used to: You know your leaders, and you can walk to Town Hall."

As in any small town, the politics can get personal.

Just ask Mike Echelbarger and Larry Sundquist, two developers who used to live here and got along with their neighbors just fine - until they bought a 60-acre, T-shaped swath of forested land in Woodway and proposed an 86-house subdivision.

Although they took pains to draw up tasteful designs for the homes, nothing could mask the fact that the development would bulldoze one of the town's largest remaining tracts of forested land, which used to house Chevron gasoline storage tanks. Wrath directed at developer

"It's been horrible, just horrible," said Echelbarger, who resigned from the Town Council to avoid a conflict of interest after purchasing the land. "I've been called a Nazi. It's just been nasty."

Sundquist said even his children felt the wrath of the town. They were selling candy door to door and one woman slammed the door in their faces after asking who their father was, he said.

Drummond and other town officials refuse to discuss the Sundquist-Echelbarger development, which recently received the go-ahead from the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board. The state board said Woodway had to accept development under Washington's Growth Management Act.

The town had tried to cut the size of the development in half by declaring the site an environmentally critical area. But the growth-management board ruled in January the town not only had to allow the development to proceed, it upped the number of homes that might go there from 86 to more than 200.

The prospect of more homes on Point Wells has added to the town's development headaches.

"You could have condos next to single-family homes. People in town do not want that, they don't." Nichols said. "We really value the independence this community has enjoyed, and we want to keep it that way."

To save its quality of life, Woodway may have to hold its nose and welcome the sewage-treatment plant. "It's just a lot better than the alternative," Johnstone said.

Jim Brunner's phone message number is 425-745-7808. His e-mail address is