Wyckoff property won’t be sold – yet

The new trustee of the Wyckoff cleanup site has agreed not to sell any of the land for at least a year, to give local and federal officials time to work on public acquisition.

And even though he is charged with securing the maximum dollar value for the property, Dan Silver, court-appointed trustee for the 50-acre property, acknowledges that a recent appraisal showing its value at between $22-34 million is too high.

“My first option would be for people in the community to raise the money,” said Silver last week. “This gives them the opportunity.”

Fouled by almost a century of creosote operations, the Eagle Harbor parcel is being cleaned up under the federal Superfund program, under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The land itself is held in a court-supervised trust. The trust agreement calls for eventual sale of the property, with proceeds going to reimburse EPA and other parties for cleanup expenses.

Total cleanup costs are expected to exceed $100 million. Because the land is not expected to sell for nearly that amount, a community advisory committee has urged that the site go into public ownership, reasoning that if taxpayers are going to sustain a net loss for the cleanup, the public ought to see a benefit.

Silver was appointed trustee in late July, succeeding Al Lowe. He made a commitment not to sell the property in a conversation earlier this month with U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee.

Inslee, who lives directly across Eagle Harbor from the site, has been exploring ways to assist in the purchase, such as determining whether work on the island that benefits the environment can be treated as some sort of “credit” towards the purchase price.

He has also explored a direct federal appropriation, which gave rise to his conversation with Silver.

“I wanted to make sure the rug was not pulled out from under us before we could see if something could be done legislatively,” Inslee said. “This will be a real challenge for the community, because no matter how you look at it, big dollars are involved.”

The property is divisible into two parts. The eastern portion at the entry to Eagle Harbor, including the “point” that juts into the harbor, was the site of the actual creosoting operation. Large quantities of the petroleum-based wood preservative leaked into the soil and water.

The EPA is gearing up for a test run on a steam-cleaning treatment process for the most contaminated areas. If the process works, final cleanup could take 10 years.

The western portion of the property, which runs to the Taylor Avenue road-end, is already clean, and could be segregated from the remainder and released for sale soon. That was the possibility Inslee wanted to forestall.

“I’m open to doing it in pieces,” Silver said. “I want to hear what the community’s plan may be.”

One part of the community’s plan, which Silver has already endorsed, is to create a memorial to the World War II exclusion of Japanese-American citizens.

Mayor Dwight Sutton appointed a citizen committee last summer, chaired by city council member Christine Nasser, to work on ways to put the property into public hands. At Silver’s request, Sutton will remain on the committee after his term as mayor expires.

How much?

One of the first orders of business is to ascertain how much the property is actually worth. Silver agrees that a recent appraisal showing a value of $22 to $34 million is too high.

“That appraiser assumed that the property was not contaminated, which it is, and assumed that there were few restrictions on its use,” he said.

In fact, the land will retain some residual contamination. More important, the EPA has said it will impose significant use restrictions to protect the integrity of environmental protection measures.

For example, EPA has said it will not allow docks or piers. And it also calls for a wide buffer between the shoreline and any building activity to protect the near-shore habitat it is trying to restore.

Sutton said that the citizen committee, EPA and Silver will meet within the next two to three weeks to establish the working assumptions for the appraisal.

“The 200-foot buffer the EPA wants to impose is a killer for development,” Sutton said. “And if there is substantial development there, that could increase traffic on Eagle Harbor Drive and cause more problems at the head of the bay. Any developer might have to do some traffic mitigation, which could affect the value.”

Sutton said the plan is for two separate appraisals – one for the “clean” western portion of the property, and another for the point area, which won’t be available for years. The appraisals could be done early this year.

Those new appraisals will give both the community and possible government funding sources a more concrete idea of what will be required, Sutton and Inslee said.

“We will do everything we can at the federal level, but we would like to find a way to avoid a direct appropriation,” Inslee said, saying that doing so could set an expensive precedent for the hundreds of other Superfund sites.”

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