A proposed 149-lot housing development west of State Route 16 in Gig Harbor is under fire by area residents who contend the project is far too large, lacks access for emergency vehicles and endangers salmon habitat in a creek running through it.

The Harbor West development has been placed on the back burner by the City while the issues are investigated by the city and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Peninsula Neighborhood Assn., which has served as a watchdog and advisor on development in the Gig Harbor area since the 1970s, says the project developer is trying to slide serious deficiencies past somnolent City officials. Huber and McGowan Inc. of Tacoma, the firm listed as developer for the project, could not be reached for comment.

Marian Berejikian, technical director for the PNA, contends the City has inadequately investigated the environmental and safety issues raised by the association.

“Environmental impact statements are not being done,” says Berejikian, who reviews environmental regulations and City codes to ensure local government and developers follow proper procedures for developments. “Project-specific studies are not being prepared. The city is just not looking at these things.”

Berejikian, a fish biologist, believes a study of Wollochet Creek conducted in July by a Puyallup company representing the developer is badly flawed. She says the report concludes that the development would have no impact on the creek because no salmon were found in it at the time of the study. Berejikian calls the report ridiculous because coho and chum salmon spawn in October, not July. She says the report also errs in describing the creek as only two feet wide and incapable of supporting a salmon habitat.

“That’s just a crock,” she says. “I don’t know what stream they’re talking about, but it isn’t Wollochet Creek.” She says the stream is five-to-six feet wide and one-to-three feet deep, easily enough water to sustain spawning salmon.

The Corps of Engineers reportedly placed a hold on the project last year after an investigation concluded that the developer conducted excavation work that disturbed wetlands on the site. That excavation is said to have included installation of a steel culvert that interfered with fish movement up the creek. The Corps subsequently directed the company to restore the area to its original state before development could be considered. Berejikian says the culvert was removed, but fill dirt that was dumped into part of the creek was not, and no City official has done anything about it.

“The City is not addressing environmental traffic—wetlands, coho and chum salmon in streams out here,” she says. “It’s sad that the City planner is not doing his job. He’s not, and I don’t know why.”

Gig Harbor Planning Director Ray Gilmore could not be reached for comment.

Developers Huber and McGowan Inc. of Puyallup first proposed the project in 1997.

PNA member Nicholas Natiello owns 32 acres of land west of the proposed development, and the creek flows through his property as well. A vocal critic of the project, he says a map of the proposed development shows 10 homes per acre are being proposed—more than triple the three homes per acre allowed by City code.

Natiello also argues that the project’s present configuration lacks emergency vehicle access from the south, creating potentially life-threatening fire-safety issues for at least 17 homes proposed in the plat.

He says he’s outraged that the City is even considering the developer’s request to build10 homes per acre on the site.

“It almost sounds so bizarre, it’s unbelievable,” says Natiello, a former New York business executive. “And the fact that the City hasn’t fought for an access road from the back of the site shows…well, I don’t know what it shows.”

The PNA says an emergency access road should be constructed from 54th Avenue Northwest because without it, narrow streets would make access by the fire department or other emergency vehicles difficult and could cause serious problems for those living in 17 homes planned for an area in the southern portion of the development.

A report on the issues raised by the PNA and by Natiello is expected to be released by the City’s hearings examiner in about two weeks.

Gig Harbor Mayor Gretchen Wilbert, herself a former PNA member, says the concerns will be thoroughly scrutinized by the City before any development occurs.

“There are some very valid questions that the City needs to look at within our code,” she says. “And we have to respond to those questions.”

The mayor says the City depends on private citizens to point out problems when they see them.

“I want to protect the salmon,” she says. “The City is required to protect the salmon, and the Army Corps of Engineers is, too.”

Natiello says he believes the mayor is acting in good faith, but he’s not so sure about the City’s planning arm.

“I believe the mayor wants the system to work properly,” he says. “The question, though, is: Why isn’t it? Why is city staff not doing it, and why does the PNA have to do it?”

Natiello says that when the developer installed a culvert and had fill dirt dumped into the creek around it last year, the creek suddenly went dry where it passed through his property.

“I was out there with buckets trying to scoop up as many fish as I could,” he says. “They were flopping around, and the herons were taking those I couldn’t get to. I think the public deserves to know why this developer is allowed to illegally dump fill in a creek and then not to clean it up after the Army Corp of Engineers orders it to. What’s going on here?”

The mayor says the 1990 Growth Management Act requires the City to allow higher density in new neighborhoods and for cities to provide the necessary services to those developments. However, she continues, she was not closely involved with the Harbor West project. That project, she says, is the purview of the planning department, which is led by Ray Gilmore.

She points out that Natiello could take the case to court if he believes the City erred in its plans for Harbor West. Natiello says that is precisely what he and the PNA will do.

In a document entitled “City of Gig Harbor on Collision Course With Disaster,” he accuses Gilmore of allowing the developer to illegally transform the headwaters of Wollochet Creek into a three-acre lake on the site, destroying fish habitat and spawning grounds; approving Harbor West despite the fact that the developer illegally filled wetlands on the site and ignored a Corps of Engineers order to remove it; approving 10 homes per acre in violation of City code; and ignoring legal precedent in approving a rezone of the property.

Natiello says he’s not demanding that the subdivision not be built.

“All we’re asking is that the city does it right,” he says.

By Richard Sypher, Business Examiner staff