Marsh project hinges on support of neighbors

City funds are earmarked for 2005, but concerns over smells follow proposal.

Residents of Murden Cove are still holding their noses at city plans to restore a saltwater marsh off Manitou Beach Drive.

But with a recent financial boost for the project, the city hopes to have homeowners breathing easy.

“The smell is the biggest issue,” said Dana Webber, president of the Murden Cove Homeowners Association. “We’re not directly opposed to the marsh, but until that and other issues are resolved, we can’t be in support of it.”

Many of the nearly 30 households in the association fear the proposal to convert part of an 1.3-acre parcel into an estuary could increase the odor of decaying sea life prevalent on neighboring beaches.

Residents have also raised concerns that the proposed estuary may boost traffic, increase flood dangers and restrict property rights.

The city, which purchased the $350,000 property last year through the Open Space Commission, has pledged to gather full support from the neighborhood before beginning the project.

A blocked culvert now prevents saltwater from entering wetlands linked to an unnamed stream flowing from a nearby hillside.

Advocates of the project say improving or expanding the culvert could re-establish a functional estuarine environment, providing critical habitat for young salmon, birds and other species.

“It’s about having good stewardship of our neighborhood,” said Karen Polinski, a member of Chums of Murden Cove, a community group that has worked to improve habitat on the stream emptying into the marsh. “Most of the estuary habitat for salmon is gone from Puget Sound. There are lots of salmon fingerlings hugging the shore there that need (estuary habitat) for feeding.”

Polinski, who owns a parcel adjacent to the city-owned property, strongly supports the project but said the city shouldn’t impose an unwanted estuary on residents. She advocates educating the neighborhood about the estuary’s benefits and building a consensus.

“We want to take a positive approach,” she said. “We want something that everybody feels good about.”

Gaining full community support will bolster grant applications to fund the project, said Public Works Director Randy Witt.

Converting and reconnecting the marsh could cost up to $520,000, according to a study completed by Herrera Environmental Consultants for the city in October. Among the larger line items are almost $40,000 for topsoil, $28,000 to purchase and install a 10-foot diamater culvert and about $25,000 for excavating and grading.

The study’s main purpose – to ascertain the feasibility of the project – concluded that “the salt marsh restoration can be designed in a manner that balances ecological gains with reasonable costs.”

The study also addressed some residents’ earlier concerns about the project. The study proposed building berms around the perimeter of the marsh to address fears of flooding in low-lying properties.

The study also advocated a three-car parking area to allow public access to the marsh for low-impact recreation and educational visits.

The parking facet “represents a compromise between the wishes of the local residents who do not want parking at the site and the needs of others from outside the neighborhood who may not be able to come to the site without an automobile,” the study stated.

While the berms may address flooding concerns, Webber said the association holds the line on the parking issue. The association will only accept capacity for one disabled-certified automobile, believing that additional spots will boost traffic in an area where few drivers heed the 25 mile-an-hour speed limit, Webber said.

“It’s a neighborhood beach, not a destination,” she said. “Having one handicap stall is a reasonable concession.”

Webber said the association will also need to see how the project will impact homeowners’ ability to alter and maintain their property.

“If our decks are rotting and we want to fix them or if a septic tank fails, we can’t support something that prevents us from maintaining our houses,” Webber said. “We’ll have to wait and see what the city can tell us. We don’t approve or disapprove. We’ve got a mixed bag of concerns.”

With the challenge of obtaining 100 percent support in mind, the City Council recently granted a $45,000 budget request for outreach and planning to gather full neighborhood backing.

“Right now we don’t want to get locked into details,” Witt said. “We want to get more information. We want to take homeowners’ preferences into account and look at alternatives to make this acceptable.”

But odor may be the biggest sticking point in the deal.

Webber said her association was told by city staff that accurately predicting future odor levels around the proposed estuary would be nearly impossible.

“As long as there’s no conclusion about the smell, the city will not get support from us,” she said.

Witt remains optimistic that the odor issue can be addressed as his department prepares to focus on a more narrow list of concerns next year.

“It would create just one more acre of mud flats,” he said. “For the bad smell in the area, it probably won’t make much difference.”

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