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Exxon hits another wetland snag

"A church appears to hold the key to whether another wetland issue further delays the controversial Exxon gas station complex in Freeland.Developers dealt with one wetland problem for months, finally receiving a go-ahead in January to begin the project at the corner of Fish Road and Highway 525. Opponents had argued unsuccessfully before Island County Hearing Examiner Michael Bobbink that the project was proposed for a protected wetland.Since Bobbink's Jan. 18 ruling favoring the developers, much of the groundwork in preparation for construction has been completed, but no actual construction has begun. And another problem recently arose when it was discovered that the developers' easement for a septic system line goes through a wetland owned by nearby Trinity Lutheran Church.Mick Olsen, one of the developers, said Thursday that plans are to run the 2-inch septic line about 1,200 feet west to property off Woodard Road owned by the developers, who also include Gordon Koetje and Terry Otey. That property will serve as the septic drainfield for the gas station and associated businesses.However, an easement to the Woodard Road property runs through church property that is a designated wetland. Pastor Jim Lindus said the church paid approximately $18,000 to restore the area as a wetland several years ago, as part of its own construction permit process.Although Olsen said the developers have an opinion from a wetlands expert that the easement could still be used, they're not anxious to get into another costly and time consuming wetland tangle with local environmentalists. So, as he and others involved explain, there are three choices:1. Obtain another easement through a different part of the property owned by Trinity Lutheran Church.2. Decide to run the septic line along Highway 525 instead of cutting through the church property.3. Go ahead and try to use the existing easement through the wetland.Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke said Thursday that the county would prefer that the developers find a different route for their septic line. It's very unlikely the county would permit a utility to go through a wetland, he said. But he didn't rule it out, saying that a process exists that could provide the allowance.The developers favor acquiring a different easement across church property, but in case that doesn't work out Olsen said a permit is being sought from the state Department of Transportation for a highway easement. There's no reason they should deny it, but it's just an involved thing, he said. The process just takes forever. We're trying to avoid it.Olsen said going across church property would take only a day or two and save around $10,000 compared to the highway alternative. He said the church has been offered $7,500 to approve a different easement route.Pastor Lindus said the church board is scheduled to meet May 12 to discuss the matter. Some parishioners have opposed the Exxon project in the past, while others have supported it. People in our congregation have been all over the map, he said. But he emphasized that the church couldn't stop the project no matter what its decision on the easement.Rather than accepting easement money from the developers, Lindus said the church would likely request that the developers' money go to some community-wide organization. He mentioned Helping Hand, a nonprofit charity, and the new Friends of Freeland group as possibilities.Friends of Freeland is raising money to buy 18 acres in the heart of town to save it from commercial development. Herb Hunt, one of the leaders, said he has talked to Lindus about the Exxon easement situation. Hunt would like the Friends to obtain part of whatever the developers offer the church.I'd like to see a compromise that benefits the community with the money they have, Hunt said. There has to be a way to start working together.As for the Exxon project, Olsen said the building permit is very close, and the developers hope to start construction by June 1. The easement issue could slow the project, but not stop it. It's not a stopper, he said. The worst that can happen is it'll drag it out another month or two. "

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