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.