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Project at corner of SR 9 – Cathcart Way got OK too quietly, appeal accuses

Michael Whitney photo

A developer has applied to turn this open space at Cathcart Way and Highway 9 into become a townhouse development and a Community Transit park-and-ride lot. This photo looks toward the intersection.

SNOHOMISH — How county planning staff proceeded with a proposed development at a large vacant corner at Highway 9 and Cathcart Way has prompted an appeal from neighbors crying foul to the County Council.
The site is county surplus land. The appeal accuses that the public was kept in the dark that the plan morphed from a town center concept shown to the public to a predominantly residential complex.
An Aug. 22 appeal asks the County Council to void the county hearing examiner’s approval, and to remand the matter back to square one under a new hearing examiner and new public process. The closed-record hearing is Oct. 5 at 1:30 p.m.
If need be, “we’re prepared to take this to Superior Court,” appeal filer Debbie Wetzel told the Tribune.
On Aug. 31, the County Council dismissed two of the six argument points of the appeal as not being under their jurisdiction. Those points are that the purchase-and-sale was not disclosed during the environmental review process, and that the county was not transparent enough on how it selected the final developer under a competitive bid process.
The site in question is a 31-acre piece of land on the southwest corner of state Route 9 and Cathcart Way. In July, the county finalized selling the site for $8.4 million to a subsidiary of D.R. Horton, one of the nation’s largest homebuilder firms.
On July 7, County Hearing Examiner Peter Camp approved a plan from D.R. Horton to build 286 townhouses plus a fast food restaurant and a mini-storage center. An adjacent park-and-ride is there, too. This development proposal is named Cathcart Crossing.
Wait a second, residents reacted.
Residents were shown an example concept to build 139 townhomes and five commercial pads at a public open house a few years ago. It emulated a town square.
Residents generally liked that concept, Wetzel said. It could bring a grocer and other services closer to them.
A second concept was heavily residential. It, too, was shown to residents at the October 2017 open house.
The real estate broker’s promotional booklet speaks of creating a community. “The preferred Development Partner will bring the ‘shared’ vision for the Cathcart neighborhood to life,” the booklet reads, adding that “A proposed development that meets all of the development criteria, is transit supportive, and brings elements of both residential and commercial space to the site, will enhance community life far into the future.”
The idea of a town center was just a concept, not a guideline, county planning director Michael McCrary said last week.
“There was conceptual plans as far back as 2005, but that’s all they were, they were concept plans,” McCrary said.
The appeal filer’s land use attorney, Rick Aramburu, though, said there’s enough to show the county had a vision for the site that wasn’t followed through.
“The county promised everyone it was not just going to be the zoning parameters, but something better,” Aramburu said. “They’re backtracking now.”
D.R. Horton itself explained in its buyer’s offer that it primarily intended to build townhomes, "with the possibility of apartments as well. Additionally, (D.R. Horton) will incorporate some commercial components into the site plan and development.”
The county’s series of purchase-and-sale agreements with D.R. Horton, reviewed by the Tribune, do not specify how it should look or feel. These became public only after approval was granted.
McCrary believes the purchase-and-sale do not require building to a concept.
The county didn’t make any underlying zoning changes to suit the project, McCrary said.
The county listed the site for sale as surplus land in 2018 because Snohomish County Public Works no longer needed it for a landfill (the sale money went to the public works solid waste fund).
D.R. Horton submitted its development application in April 2021. Neighbors living within 500 feet of the project got a postcard notice.
A wider range of interested neighbors want a say for the community, such as Wetzel, who lives about 1.5 miles away.
Until Cathcart incorporates into a city, neighbors believe they lack any protection to keep Cathcart reasonably rural, a few told the Tribune.
Within a week, the sale closed to D.R. Horton July 13. A clearcutter came soon after.
It’s unusual that the land sale wrapped up before the deadline for appeals expired July 21, the appellants’ attorney Aramburu said.
“Land developers don’t want to take chances unless they’re really sure where (a development) is going,” he said.
Another part of the appeal says people were kept out of the loop.
A letter sent in summer of last year signed by 14 concerned citizens asked county planning explicitly to add them as “Parties of Record.” Being a “party of record” on a project puts someone on a project notification mailing list and allows them to be able to participate in decision-making hearings.
The hearing loomed June 14, 2022 on Zoom. Four days prior, though, emails between the hearing examiner’s office and county planners debated who would be invited to the hearing.
The appellants say they were unambiguous about wanting to be included.
The clerk for the Hearing Examiner’s office treated their letter as a formal Party of Record request, but planning staff disagreed, saying the letter is a petition which doesn’t require having the signers be added as parties of record. The clerk backed off. Planning staff informed D.R. Horton of the exchange.
Planning staff prepares the list of parties of record. That list had 10 names.
Disallowing people from the meeting was “a questionable decision,” Aramburu said.
The site had another suitor.
At least two companies responded to a public call for offers to develop the property: D.R. Horton and TRF Pacific (originally known as The Rainier Fund). TRF withdrew in December 2019.
TRF Pacific’s plan, through its architect, would have followed the “urban village” concept with housing, retail and entertainment.
The county was already drafting a purchase-and-sale agreement with D.R. Horton’s at the time, emails show.
“Until they do something with that bridge,” meaning where Highway 9 crosses the Snohomish River, “it will be a parking lot for the ‘Snohomish River Bridge tour’” by adding near-900 residents into the spot, said Randy Priddy, a nearby landowner who’s been there for 30 years. Constant traffic roared along the highway beside him.
The land clearing already has displaced deer, he said.
Consistent throughout is the purchase-and-sale agreement requires the developer to build an adjacent Park-and-Ride lot for transit users.
Community Transit, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on how the appeal might impact the park-and-ride’s construction timeline because this is a legal matter.
The bus system is planning a future Snohomish-to-Lynnwood “express bus” to connect with the Lynnwood Link Light Rail station.
Beyond this express route, “if a (park-and-ride) lot is built at this location, it would allow us an opportunity to look at additional ways we can use our routes to serve more neighborhoods,” Community Transit spokeswoman Monica Spain said.
The history is that the county bought a large 600-acre plot along Cathcart Way a few decades ago, and has sold some parcels since, including today’s sites of Glacier Peak High School and Little Cedars Elementary, and to create Willis Tucker Park.
The county bought the park-and-ride site from a church that didn’t accomplish building a church there.

Michael Whitney photo

A developer has applied to turn this open space at Cathcart Way and Highway 9 into become a townhouse development and a Community Transit park-and-ride lot. This photo looks away from the intersection where bulldozers are stationed.



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