Hearing Examiner: Cheasty mountain biking and hiking trails need more study

Cheasty-Map-3-15-15Another Seattle bike trail plan has run into delays from the environmental review process, this time a mountain biking and hiking trail.

After years of community outreach, heated debates and evolving designs, the Cheasty Trails and Bike Park cleared vital hurdles last year by getting approval from both the Parks Board and the City Council.

But as anyone who follows bike trail projects in Seattle knows all too well, you can line up funding, political support and community engagement and still face delays from the environmental review process where the legal muscle of opponents can be extremely effective.

Hopefully, the Cheasty project is not headed to the same legal hell as the still-delayed Burke-Gilman Missing Link, a fate the under-construction Westlake Bikeway narrowly avoided. This project is not there yet, though, since even proponents say they want more specific environmental studies and the project is still in the design process.

The city’s independent Hearing Examiner has determined that the existing environmental studies for the Cheasty Park are insufficient in part because they were done in cold weather and did not study closely enough the impacts on wildlife habitat and wetland water movement. Basically, Seattle Parks wanted environmental data to inform public outreach, a process that ended up developing compromises as it should. But that data is not good enough to satisfy the environmental rules, according to the Examiner (Publicola posted the PDF of the decision).

So now Seattle Parks needs to do more environmental study and go back through the Hearing Examiner again, which could delay groundbreaking.

The leaders of the Cheasty Park effort are taking the news in stride.

“In preparation for permitting, we had already planned to obtain more detailed wetland information post-SEPA,” said Joel DeJong in a press release from the Friends of Cheasty Greenspace/Mt. View, the group behind the park idea. “The reversal decision has clarified the details we should focus on during the next stage of wetland reconnaissance, with the goal of upholding and enhancing the environmental integrity of this wooded parkland.”

Environmental review mission drift

So is the Cheasty decision an example of the environmental review process working? Maybe. I certainly hope so, and that it is not just the first in a long series of legal battles.

It’s unfortunate that environmental review is such a scary process for biking and walking projects, since we all agree that it is important to make sure projects won’t hurt people or natural spaces. But when misused, the environmental review process can also be such an effective way for someone with a good legal team to delay projects that have public support.

Overcoming a well-funded legal opposition can become a very expensive and time-consuming process, wasting public funding. You don’t even need to be right or win a final legal decision if you can add enough cost to the legal process to kill a project. Reading through environmental review documents, it’s sometimes hard to remember that we’re talking about biking and walking trails, not a freeway or power plant.

California took a small step in 2013 toward exempting bike network plans from state environmental review after a very successful lawsuit delayed San Francisco’s bike plan for years and forcing the city to go through a very expensive environmental impact study. That lawsuit had discouraged other communities in the state from developing bike plans, which is clearly a bad outcome for the environment.

Maybe California is onto something. If we determine that biking and walking facilities designed to modern standards are an inherently good thing for communities’ environments, then should there at least be a different more streamlined environmental process for them? A bike trail is not a freeway, after all. It’s part of the solution.

Of course, this is just me thinking out loud. Cheasty proponents are not saying this at all. They’re just focused on developing the plans better and getting everything lined up and ready to ride, like they have been for half a decade.

Here’s the full press release from the Friends of Cheasty Greenspace/Mt. View:

The Friends of Cheasty Greenspace/Mt. View (FCGMV), the community organization behind the Cheasty Mountain Bike/Pedestrian Trail Pilot Project, continue to move forward with the trail design process by gathering necessary environmental data.  The recent SEPA DNS (Designation of Non-Significance) reversal has made it clear that further evaluation of the impacts on wetlands and wildlife must occur before the project can be constructed.

FCGMV is committed to ensuring that all necessary environmental review is completed prior to the implementation of pedestrian and mountain bike trails in the greenspace.

“In preparation for permitting, we had already planned to obtain more detailed wetland information post-SEPA.  The reversal decision has clarified the details we should focus on during the next stage of wetland reconnaissance, with the goal of upholding and enhancing the environmental integrity of this wooded parkland,” said Joel DeJong from FCGMV.

FCGMV was founded in 2008 with a mission to Reclaim, Restore, Reimagine, and Reconnect Cheasty Greenspace, a 43+ acre forest in the Rainier Valley.  FCGMV hosts bi-monthly work parties where community members join together to restore the greenspace to a healthy native habitat.  The environmental health of the forest is a primary focus of the the group’s effort who were recipients of the 2013 Denny Award for environmental stewardship.

FCGMV, along with its supporting volunteers, is committed to making Cheasty Greenspace accessible to the diverse communities that live in Southeast Seattle while improving the environmental condition of the greenspace.

“The Cheasty Trails pilot presents an opportunity to design a trail system that allows mountain biking and pedestrian activity to co-occur with minimal impact to either user experience.  FCGMV is deeply committed to getting this mixed-use area right and has engaged a strong group of partners to coordinate the design to this end,” said DeJong.

It is FCGMV’s experience with Cheasty Mt. View (the southern 10 acres of Cheasty Greenspace) that limiting access to the greenspace enables humans to damage the environment through illicit behaviors, illegal dumping, and unlicensed excavation and plant removal.  However, creating safe, welcoming access to the greenspace changes that dynamic in a positive way by empowering the surrounding communities to engage in environmental stewardship.  The community has rallied around FCGMV’s efforts and now enjoys access to and through the restored natural area in Cheasty Mt. View via a forested trail system.

“Cheasty Mt. View is a 10-acre template of a successful trail system that we hope to expand throughout the greenbelt with the addition of sustainably built pedestrian and mountain bike trails,” said DeJong.

The design process for the Cheasty Mountain Bike/Pedestrian Trail Pilot Project is currently at approximately 65% completion.  More environmental review and specific data related to trail alignment near environmental critical areas will move the design process to 90% completion.

FCGMV deeply appreciates  its community of volunteers and organizational supporters for continuing to partner in the endeavor as the project moves forward through the design process towards fruition.

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21 Responses to Hearing Examiner: Cheasty mountain biking and hiking trails need more study

  1. Janine says:

    No, a bike trail is not a freeway–but neither are the environmental impacts of a bike trail in an environmentally sensitive area the same as those of a bike network in an urban area.

    • Just_Wandering says:

      Janine, that can be said for any trail, that is “the environmental impacts of a trail in an environmentally sensitive area are not the same as those in an urban area.” What is clearly missed in situations like this is that we are talking about bicycle trails in an urban area. These parks are already urbanized, even when they do not let people in them. There is no clear answer as to how a bicycle trail in these situations is worse than a pedestrian trail. When you stand on a bicycle or pedestrian trail and nobody is on it there is no features that immediately stand out as being different. The only true difference is the fear of bicycle impact on pedestrians or as a commenter on a Seattle Weekly article recently stated, “enough with the god damm bikes ,they just scare little old ladies while zooming down the sidewalk.” That is an argument for separated bicycle facilities not an argument not to have them in the first place. We need to look deep at the ground to see more difference than our fears and I do fear bicycles because they do break hips.

  2. RDPence says:

    The Parks Department website shows that community outreach ended last April for this Cheasty project — http://www.seattle.gov/parks/projects/cheasty/gs_bike_trail.htm. In their news release above, trail promoters claim that final design is 65 percent complete, but they must have information not available to the public since there’s nothing about that on the project website.

    I attended all of the public meetings on this project, but have since received no updates or anything. The project is apparently moving ahead under the radar. Time for someone to shed a little more daylight on it.

  3. Joseph says:

    So…do I have this straight? Friends of Cheasty are proponents of the bike/walk trail and have been for years (per their statement above). DPD issued a SEPA Determination of Non-Significance (DNS) that would allow Friends’ project to move forward. Then Friends of Cheasty APPEAL and have that DNS overturned, thus blocking a project they support. Interesting.

    Any info about their motivation in pressing an appeal? Is it a defensive move, as they fear having DPD’s inadequate DNS overturned later on?

    Or, maybe I’m just all confused…this is certainly possible!

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      You’re confused because it’s confusing!

      There are lot of friends involved. “Friends of Cheasty” are appellants and are different from “Friends of Cheasty Greenspace/Mt. View,” a community group in favor of the project.

      • psf says:

        Friends of Cheasty are a long existing but inactive group of neighbors who would strongly prefer that people from Rainier Valley not come to Cheasty to ride mountain bikes.

        They have been notably hapless over the years to keep homeless people from living in or garbage dumping from occurring in the greenspace.
        They have also been uninterested in controlling the vast quantities of ivy overrunning the Cheasty greenspace.

        Cheasty Mountain View is the group that has been clearing up ivy in the space, getting volunteers energized and working, getting grants from local companies and parks, and otherwise trying to accomplish a goal.

        RDPence is closely affiliated with Friends of Cheasty, for better or worse.
        Regardless of results, the rear guard lawsuits can be expected to continue.

      • mark holland says:

        Mr. Fucoluro,

        Where do you see the Hearing Examiner say more study is needed in this Finding?


        The idea the Hearing Examiner would order the Parks Department
        to do “more study” is patently absurd, and conveys a total ignorance of what the appeal process and role of the hearing examiner is, and is not.

        Rule #1: The Hearing Examiner is an independent contractor hired by the City to examine appeals to building projects.

        The hearing examiner does not make executive decisions for the Parks Department upper management.

        The Hearing Examiner found the Determination of Non Significance (DNS) should be reversed because the Parks Department made erroneous claims of no significant impacts to the wildlife habitat and hydrology of the Cheasty Forest.

        The Parks Department failed to provide evidence of “no significant impacts.”.

        That finding is the end of the Hearing Examiner’s role.

        The Parks Department started this ridiculous idea that the hearing examiner somehow ordered them to do more study on the city webpage for the Cheasty Bike Park proposal.


        with this quote:

        “On Jan. 26, 2016, the Hearing Examiner found that there was insufficient information for SPR to issue a DNS at this time and that more information and study are needed about wetland impacts including drainage/hydrologic impacts as they relate to wetlands, impacts to trees including through compaction and altered hydrology and any associated impacts to wildlife habitat.”

        Finding “insufficient information” and “more study needed” are two different things.

        The finding of “insufficient information” is what the Hearing Examiner did.

        “…and that more study is needed..” is 100% the Parks Department.

        The Parks Department likes to blame everyone else for Cheasty. Now they have involved the office of the Hearing Examiner in their little Cheasty Plot.

        In so doing, the Parks Department smears the Hearing Examiner with responsibility for the Cheasty Bike Park proposal “moving forward”, and confuses the public about the function of the appeals process, and role of the Hearing Examiner.

        Ultimately, the Parks Department’s deceit and spin does a disservice to our city and our democracy.

        The Parks Department acted like a five year old caught with their hand in the cookie jar from the beginning of this wretched project.

        I would like to see the people who run the Parks Department stand up like adults for once and take responsibility for their executive decisions.

        If the Cheasty Bike Park is to “move forward” then it is 100% the decision of the Park Superintendent Jesus Aguirre, the Mayor, and the City Council.

        It is also they who are now responsible for the Parks Department’s misrepresentation of one the most basic and sacred functions of our democracy.

        The right to file an appeal, and win.

  4. Rich Knox says:

    Realize that this project is for mountain bike trails. I hope it proceeds, because I think it would be a great asset for the community. It doesn’t have that much to do with transportation. Cheasty Blvd. already exists and is a nice low traffic, reasonable grade way of getting up Beacon Hill. It could stand some pavement improvements, but the transportation connection is already there.

  5. Mark Ahlness says:

    Tom, thanks for your strong voice for bikes, for environmental protection, and for thinking about our healthy future. I first heard about the Cheasty mountain bike park proposal on your blog two years ago.

    My goodness, what has happened in those two years.

    There are several points to make, but I’ll leave you with the press release you did not mention – the one from the Friends of Cheasty, who were granted a stunning reversal of the DNS from Parks. It is a very important part of this story. – Mark

    http://bit.ly/20DaSST or read below:

    Parks Department fails to prove mountain bike park will have no significant environmental impact on local greenspace (January 27, 2016)

    Friends of Cheasty (“FOC”) is pleased to announce the successful overturn of the Seattle
    Department of Parks & Recreation’s (“Parks Department”) Determination of Non-Significance (“DNS”) in its environmental review for a mountain bicycle and pedestrian trail system in the Cheasty Greenspace. The Seattle Hearing Examiner concluded that the Parks Department failed to identify adequate information to support its determination that the proposed mountain bike park would result in no significant impacts on wetlands and wildlife habitat on the site. The Hearing Examiner also concluded that the Parks Department failed to accurately describe the scope and size of the mountain bike and pedestrian trails.

    Through testimony and evidence before the Hearing Examiner, FOC met the extremely high burden of appealing a DNS. The Hearing Examiner was required to accord the Parks Department’s DNS substantial weight, and could not support FOC’s appeal unless FOC demonstrated that the DNS was clearly erroneous. Friends of Cheasty met this extremely high burden of proof, and the Hearing Examiner was “left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.”

    FOC Attorney, Ryan Vancil, stated ‘the ruling is notable because it is extremely rare for a
    citizen’s group to prevail in an appeal of this kind because the burden of proof is so high. It is only possible where an official has egregiously failed to fulfill his or her duty for environmental review.’ The Hearing Examiner reversed the Parks Department’s decision, and the Department must now perform an adequate analysis of the mountain bike park impacts on wetlands and wildlife habitat.

    ‘We applaud this ruling by the Hearing Examiner’, said FOC spokesperson Sarah Welch. ‘We have worked tirelessly to support science-based forest restoration of natural areas and to convince the City to comply with the environmental laws and policies of the State of Washington and City of Seattle when considering such a project.’

    While the mountain bike park ultimately may still move forward in some form, Friends of Cheasty will continue its vigilant watch on the Parks Department to see that the wildlife habitat and wetlands of Cheasty Greenspace are protected.


    Media Contact: Friends of Cheasty
    Attorney: Ryan Vancil Friends of Cheasty: Sarah Welch
    Vancil Law Offices
    206-842-7811; ryan@vancillaw.com
    206-359-2588: sarahwelch@comcast.net
    Friends of Cheasty
    3820 Cheasty Blvd. South
    Seattle, WA 98108


    The Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation plans to build a mountain bike trail system in a 28.5-acre parcel within the larger 43 acre Cheasty Greenspace. Cheasty Greenspace is a preserved forest, rich in biodiversity located on the east side of Beacon Hill southeast of downtown Seattle. This pilot project sets a dangerous precedent for all Seattle many undeveloped greenspaces and natural areas.

    Friends of Cheasty (http://www.savecheastygreenspace.org/) opposes the installation of a mountain bike park and all forms of bike trails in Cheasty Greenspace. We advocate for
    protection and expansion of quality habitat, trees, wildlife and healthy native plan
    communities in Cheasty Greenspace, and all Seattle Greenspaces and natural areas for the benefit of all people. Friends of Cheasty is a long established local community group advocating since the 1980’s for acquisition and preservation of parcels to create this large urban forest.

    With this appeal was Friends of Cheasty’s highlighted the dismissive stance of the Seattle Parks Department toward the environmental impacts resulting from the conversion of a passive greenspace to the active recreation of a mountain bike and pedestrian loop trail system.

    What started as a local neighborhood issue heightened concerns from many forest stewards and ‘friends of’ groups working throughout the City to preserve and restore Seattle’s natural areas. The parcels of land that comprise Seattle’s natural areas were acquired by the City to preserve native wildlife habitat. They will be even more fundamental to the quality of life of Seattle citizens as the City undergoes rapid growth and development. Coalitions of environmental groups herald this decision as a statement that Seattle citizens value environmental policies that preserve urban forests.

    Friends of Cheasty is hopeful that this decision will encourage the Parks Department to
    reconsider its approach to providing mountain biking opportunities in the City. Instead of forcing a mountain bike park within one fragile natural greenbelt, the City should undertake a comprehensive planning strategy to serve the mountain bike community similar to the planning undertaken for skate boarders in the City of Seattle.

    However, Friends of Cheasty recognizes that this decision may not end the mountain bike park proposal. FOC will continue its advocacy to protect this natural area, including following any project permitting by Parks. We will look critically at any attempts by Parks to exempt itself from compliance with the City’s environmentally critical areas ordinances or any other environmental laws or policies of the Federal, State or City governments.

    The coalition of communities that are concerned with the preservation of these precious urban forest network advocates for their preservation. Friends of Cheasty will continue our work with organizations throughout Seattle to preserve all of our urban forests for all the environmental and health benefits that they provide for current and future generations.

    The Hearing Examiner’s Findings and Decision is available at: Hearing Examiner Findings and Decision on the Friends of Cheasty website: http://www.savecheastygreenspace.org/

    • pqbuffington says:

      So, the goal of the FOC is that nobody will ever be allowed access?

      “With this appeal was Friends of Cheasty’s highlighted the dismissive stance of the Seattle Parks Department toward the environmental impacts resulting from the conversion of a passive greenspace to the active recreation of a mountain bike and pedestrian loop trail system.”

      • jack haR says:

        Exactly. I bet most of the “friends” live in other neighborhoods and enjoy access to their own nearby natural areas, but God forbid the poor folks in 98144 get to enjoy theirs.

      • RDPence says:

        “So, the goal of the FOC is that nobody will ever be allowed access?” Not at all. The FOC have no problem with the pedestrian trail part of the project. People should of course have access, for the quiet contemplation of nature — what the natural area was intended for.

        The concern is over the mountain bike path, which has the effect of turning the natural area into an active recreation park. Mountain biking has evolved into an adrenalin sport, which is a bit out of character for a natural area.

      • Peri Hartman says:

        I understand your point of view. I do a lot of hiking and when I’m in the wilderness I do not want to encounter someone racing downhill on a MB.

        But city parks are different than wilderness, even large “natural” areas such as Cheasty. Just for clarification, what types of activities do you think should be allowed in such areas? And where do you propose to provide areas for teens and older to go get MB recreation?

        Personally, I’m willing to take the compromise of more activity in urban natural areas to give the opportunity for people to get more exercise; to give them incentive get outside rather than play with the game console, etc.

      • RDPence says:

        Yes, city parks are not wilderness, but green spaces / natural areas are not considered to be active recreation parks. They are not “parks in waiting”, ready for the first development project that comes along.

        The Parks Department could’ve and should’ve considered alternative locations for a mountain bike track. I expect they would’ve found a location that didn’t have all the wetlands and landslide and steep slopes encountered in Cheasty.

  6. Law Abider says:

    Can you imagine if construction development reviews hit the same roadblocks that fully funded trails on City owned property did?

    • Peri Hartman says:

      Actually, they often do. At least, the large projects.

    • Steve Campbell says:

      All kinds of private projects are subject to SEPA review. Plus private developers don’t get to issue their own determinations of non-significance like the city does.

  7. jack haR says:

    How about an environmental impact review for the illegal campers that are trashing the place, which the city does nothing about? Way worse impact than letting us have a few trails like all the rich folks have in their neighborhoods (and the city seems to do I fine job of keeping the campers out of their neighborhoods too.)

  8. jt says:

    This is so bizarre. Does anyone know what the Friends of Cheasty’s actual reasons are to oppose the project? It’s obviously got nothing to do with preserving forest or protecting the environment, since these trails will have virtually 0 negative impact on the forest, and will benefit the environment by letting mountain bikers in the neighborhood do so close to home, without driving out to the Cascades. If their goal is to have urban forests that benefit urban residents, then obviously these trails would FURTHER that goal rather than hinder it, by allowing the public to actually enjoy the environmental benefits of the urban forest.

    Do they already have private access to the Cheasty Greenspace they’re worried will get superseded by public access? Are they concerned people will park in front of their houses to visit the trails? Or that the trail users will leave trash behind? Or is it simply pure malice, perhaps driven by a zero-sum view of the world — when mountain bikers are made happier, knowing about their happiness just makes FoC sad or angry?

  9. RDPence says:

    It, please read my comments above. They respond to your questions.

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