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Camp Casey expansion faces legal hurdle

For the past month, the Whidbey Environmental Action Network has been arguing against a proposed development at Seattle Pacific University's Casey Conference Center near Coupeville.

Earlier in the month, Steve Erickson, litigation coordinator for WEAN, threatened to take legal action if plans to cut 5 acres of forest aren't changed.

That threat became a reality last week when WEAN filed an appeal with the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.

"SPU has left us no option that this is an urban development and a master planned resort," Erickson said. "We're going for broke and using all the legal tools at our disposal."

Erickson argued that recent county decisions that permit SPU to expand the conference center violates the growth management act.

In December, the Island County Board of Commissioners approved the rezoning of the Casey Conference Center to a special review district.

Seattle Pacific University plans to increase the number of beds at the center from 670 to 1,030, to build additional conference room space and providing additional parking and infrastructure such as water treatment facilities.

The expansion needs 14 acres for growth and five of those acres fall within a forest and would have to be cleared.

WEAN argues that such clearing would leave the remaining 20 acres of woodland susceptible to damage from wind and soil erosion.

"Because of the shallow soil, the tree roots weave together like a fine tapestry," said WEAN member Marianne Edain. "Once torn by development, the edges will keep unraveling as the trees blow down."

Susan Hizon, coordinator of planning and development for the Casey Conference center would not comment this week on the appeal. She said that she hasn't seen the appeal and needs time for the university's legal department to go through the documents WEAN filed.

Island County is in the same boat as SPU in that officials learned about the legal action Thursday and are figuring out how to respond to the appeal.

"This is a fairly unique petition because all it does is ask questions," said Jeff Tate, assistant director of the Island County Planning Department.

He said the questions WEAN ask in the appeal have were answered during the Dec. 16 commissioners meeting where a special review district for the SPU project was approved in early February.

Tate didn't think the appeal would go far.

"I'm really confident that we'll have a ruling in the county's and SPU's favor," Tate said.

Another point Erickson made about the SPU forest is that its designation as a Natural Heritage site warrants special consideration. The Washington Natural Heritage program is a monitoring and information dissemination service.

Rob Harbour, manager of Ebey's Landing Historic Reserve, said the Natural Heritage title is a little fuzzy and has been left to interpretation.

When asked about SPU's concern for the environment, Harbour said that SPU has worked with the Nature Conservancy to protect golden paintbrush populations and Crockett Lake. But he said he would also like to see SPU work with park officials to tie in trail networks to connect Ebey's Landing State Park and Fort Casey State Park.

He said WEAN's appeal could interfere with SPU's ability to continue plans for the expansion.

The coming weeks will see the state hearings board deciding whether WEAN has a valid case to present and file briefs.

Erickson said that the hearing's board has 180 days to render a decision.

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