Snoqualmie's qualms

Residents battle a new development next to Snoqualmie Falls.

IMAGINE YOU ARE visiting Snoqualmie Falls, viewing the world-renowned tourist attraction from the observation deck next to the Salish Lodge. As you look directly across at the Falls, you see 400 houses and a couple of retail/office parks on the adjacent cliff where once a thick forest framed the torrential waters in green.

That's the scenario some Snoqualmie residents and others fear will come to pass if the city of Snoqualmie approves a proposed development called Falls Crossing, which would bring a huge development to a 180-acre parcel that stretches from the Falls to the Sammamish Parkway, and from Highway 202 to the ongoing and even more massive Snoqualmie Ridge development. The Falls Crossing developer is Puget Western, the real estate subsidiary of Puget Sound Energy, the company that draws electricity out of the dammed Falls.

Despite Puget Western's insistence that the project wouldn't intrude on the view of the Falls, a small but vociferous opposition has arisen. "There are so many reasons not to develop this area," says Dan Nelson, one of about 20 locals who are monitoring city planning commission deliberations on Falls Crossing. Opponents like Nelson worry about preserving not only the view but trees and wildlife on and around what is now a vast, undisturbed piece of forestland.

In addition, there are the objections of the Snoqualmie Indian tribe, which claims the land as a sacred site but considered putting its own development there (see sidebar).

The overarching issue is growth in a tiny town that is fighting against the current, trying to remain rural while offering awe-inspiring scenery within (by the region's changing standards) reasonable commuting distance from Seattle and the Eastside.

The city of Snoqualmie, at least, seems likely to force Puget Western to take extreme measures to hide its development from the Falls viewpoint. The planning commission, which will make a detailed recommendation to the Snoqualmie City Council for final approval, has indicated dissatisfaction with the company's plan to protect the view with a buffer of trees— trees that could be knocked down by the area's high winds. Instead, the commission is leaning toward using the slope of the land itself as a shield, so that the development couldn't be seen even if every single tree were blown down. By Puget Western's estimate, that would put the development back from the cliff line about 600 feet.

Opponents are nevertheless skeptical that the view will remain unchanged. "Give us a break, you said the same thing with the Ridge," says resident Matt Larson. Careful observers at the Falls observation deck can indeed see a sliver of the 2,500-home Snoqualmie Ridge development on the crest to their right—a flat, light green sliver of a golf course that lies incongruously between towering evergreens. Never mind that Larson himself lives in Snoqualmie Ridge. Falls Crossing is apparently a project that everyone in town can hate.

Many would continue to do so even if they could be assured of a pristine Falls view. "What we'd like to see is the land left in its natural state," says resident Dan Nelson, who hopes that a savior like the Mountains to Sound Greenway project would buy the land from Puget Western and put it in trust. "We're talking about one of the largest stands of second growth in the Valley." Nelson, a soft-spoken department store shoe salesman, knows the area better than most because he has hiked it several times with a video camera and a tape measure in order to document the size of trees and the lushness of the forest within. He has found one gigantic Douglas fir that he believes must be old growth, measuring 25 feet 9 inches in circumference.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has raised additional concerns about threatened fish and birds that might lose their habitat to this development, whether on the grounds or the Snoqualmie River below. Among them are the peregrine falcon, the pileated woodpecker, the Puget Sound Fall Chinook salmon, and the Coastal Puget Sound bull trout.

Puget Western president Bob Boyd is unapologetic. This is his company's third try to get the project approved, and he feels Puget Western has bent over backwards to accommodate the city of Snoqualmie. In this scaled-down version of the development, roughly half of the 180-acre site would be kept as open space. The company has also agreed to preserve a 24-acre parcel of woods across Highway 202 that helps frame the gateway bridge to the Falls.

On a tour of the development site, he slows down as he heads east on Snoqualmie Parkway toward that 24-acre parcel, which also serves as foreground for a pastoral vista of the Cascades. "Everything you see here, this entire view would stay the same," he says. "Pretty incredible." (On the other side of the highway, beyond the historic railroad tracks, would be a retail complex modeled on Issaquah's Gilman Village.)

What looks like a lot of open space by city standards, though, doesn't necessarily look that way in this sleepy former mill town, which has always seemed to belong more to the mountains than to the Seattle metropolitan area. That's changing, of course, as regional growth takes its toll, and that's part of what this battle is about.

"This is a rural area, not urban," stresses Dan Perrins, manager of the local grocery store. Not according to regional growth management planning, though. As a city, no matter how bucolic, Snoqualmie is targeted for considerably increased density, the theory being that concentrated growth here will prevent sprawl in even more pristine areas nearby. Folks here believe that the city has already taken its share of growth with Snoqualmie Ridge, which when complete will bring an influx of 5,000 people to a town that had only 1,500 a few short years ago. "That's 300 percent growth," says Mayor Fuzzy Fletcher, who was elected two years ago on a platform of keeping the rural character of the city. "I don't think any growth management plan expects a city to take any more growth than that."

Incredibly, as Boyd of Puget Western points out, the city's own comprehensive plan does. By 2014, Snoqualmie should expect as many as 2,800 more residents. That means even more developments after Falls Crossing, which would add about 1,000.

Some would argue that those numbers don't mean that growth should happen all at once; Snoqualmie would be on track to meet its population target if it didn't build a single unit after the Ridge until 2010. But as growth increasingly threatens the sensitive urban-rural boundary, both those wanting to preserve and those wanting to pave over the wilderness resent the specifics of growth management.

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