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Strawberry Plant hits a snag

The city was closing in on 90 percent design for the salmon restoration project at Strawberry Plant Park, when it encountered a small hurdle: It doesn’t own all of the land.

That has been the case all along, but it only became a problem recently.

A small piece of the site to be developed – bordering the stream on the east side of the property – is owned by California-based energy company PNEC Corp., but a local resident has a purchase option on the property. According to staff, that citizen objected to the project and threatened litigation against PNEC and the city if it used the disputed portion of land for the project.

As a condition of the development, the owner of that area must sign off on the project.

Long Range Planning Director Libby Hudson said the area has always been part of past uses of Strawberry Plant even though it was owned by PNEC, and previously by Conoco-Phillips.

The area is contaminated because of its history as a tank farm and still needs to be cleaned up by the owner, Hudson said.

Hudson said the area (a 60-foot-wide strip that is part of a .64 acre of property bordering the site) has been removed from the designs.

The plan was to restore stream buffers and remove a small amount of concrete from the area, which will now remain untouched, Hudson said.

“It’s just a small piece, so we’re taking it out,” Hudson said. “The funders are OK with it; it’s a very minor change.”

Letters from both Salmon Funding Recovery Board and the Elliot Bay Trustees to the city confirm this.

“The Trustees want to express our strong, continued support for the Strawberry Plant Park Shoreline Restoration Project,” National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration representative John Kern wrote to interim City Manager Lee Walton in March.

But even the “minor change” made some councilors wary of the situation. As a result, the council elected to add Strawberry Plant Park to its Wednesday study session agenda. Several councilors were concerned going into the meeting that the change in the design had a greater effect on the project than anticipated.

But after presentations from staff and representatives from the granting agencies, councilors agreed that the alteration wasn’t of great consequence.

Before the Wednesday meeting, Mayor Bob Scales expressed doubt about the project after learning of the changes. Scales said he never agreed with the restoration project. The area was acquired in a 2005 trade for the John Nelson Park land so the city could create an active-use waterfront park, but that’s not what happened. But his aim was not to stop the project because he didn’t agree with its scope.

“There is no right or wrong answer for what we should do with Strawberry Plant, it comes down to a policy choice,” he said.

Councilor Hilary Franz, who has an extensive background in shoreline restoration projects, wrote that Strawberry Plant fits in with attempts to restore the region’s shorelines.

“The enhancement at the site is one element of critical restoration of the habitat projects for the Puget Sound,” she wrote.

Despite council consensus, some members of the public still weren’t satisfied.

Local historian Gerald Elfendahl said during the public comment period that the stream is not the issue. The major offense is the neglecting of the wishes of John Nelson, who gave his property to the city upon his death, property that was later traded for Strawberry Plant.

“Sixty years ago, this man died and left everything to the community he loved,” Elfendahl said. “His wishes are being ignored on this project.”

A number of citizens spoke in favor of the restoration project as well.

Planning Commissioner Maradel Gale said the citizen altering the project confirms how badly the city needs to see the restoration through. Private property owners won’t do this kind of work on their own land, so it’s up to the city, she said.

“The city has the moral obligation to do this because no one else will,” she said.

Hudson said the main components for public enjoyment, a kayak launch and an overwater structure, remain unaffected by this change. The city will build the kayak launch during its portion of the project. The overwater structure is part of the upland portion, which will be managed by the Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Parks and Recreation District.

The grant funding, which is paying for the project, doesn’t include the overwater structure, but it has been permitted.

Hudson said the design has been tweaked slightly through the process to establish greater public access to the water. The restored areas will be protected in their early phases, but areas will not be permanently fenced off or restricted to keep people from accessing the water.

“You can get to the water as an individual in that area, that will be clear,” she said.

The project is a part of a greater shoreline restoration package, featuring two operations on Pritchard Park as well. Hudson said 90 percent design is nearing completion, and the three projects will go out to bid soon, with the hope of work starting in the fall and completion by the end of the year.

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