Gas station proposal opens ideological divide

The push for a gas station in the Issaquah Highlands is becoming more than just a question of economics and convenience, as city staff, residents, and the developer consider what it would mean for the heralded green development and Issaquah’s goals of conservation and sustainability.

The push for a gas station in the Issaquah Highlands is becoming more than just a question of economics and convenience, as city staff, residents, and the developer consider what it would mean for the heralded green development and Issaquah’s goals of conservation and sustainability.

The City of Issaquah is approaching the issue with an open-mind, searching for an original and effective solution to both satisfy the commercial needs of the Highland’s residents and the city’s ideals.

A gas station was included in developer Port Blakely’s initial presentations to the city in the early 1990s, but was taken off the table after environmental concerns were raised by councilors. There were fears that tank leaks and gasoline runoff could enter the underground aquifer on which the city relies for its water supply.

According to Port Blakely President Alan Boeker, in recent months there has been an increase in calls from residents for a gas station.

“Over the years they have kept asking the question,” he said, adding that at regular residents’ meetings at the Highlands Town Hall, whether or not to bring in a gas station had been “a bit of an emotional issue.”

Four months ago the developer decided to raise the issue again with the city, and in doing so cited new technology that gas stations were using to reduce leaks and provide increased environmental safety.

Boeker also said that his company now had a better understanding of the geology of the area, and had recently found that there is in fact a hard pan layer on top of the aquifer, known as an “aquatard,” a less permeable layer which would protect the aquifer from seepage from above.

In a Port Blakely survey, returned by about 300 Highlands residents, 70 percent of respondents were in favor of a gas station.

Department of Ecology Tank Site Inspector Annette Ademasu said that stricter regulations instituted in 1998 had brought about a reduction in the amount of leaks and spill at gas stations nationwide. As of July 1, 2007, all new tanks and pipes that are installed must be “double-walled.”

“I think the technology and the regulations are very good generally,” Ademasu said, stressing, however, that her department was only one of several agencies that regulate gas stations; the others include Puget Sound Clean Air.

“We implement only the basic, minimum requirements,” she said. “If you have areas of concern that you want to be more protected, then the city has the ability to get an environmental review done and insist on additional requirements.”

Ademasu said she saw “about a dozen” instances of leaks from new generation tanks and pipes in the region each year, the majority of which were very small.

The safety of the city’s aquifer appears to be just one of the pressing issues. Another is whether the city should be strengthening it’s connection with a fossil fuel, the diminishing availability of which is at the heart of perhaps the world’s most pressing environmental and economic crises.

In a letter to the Issaquah land use committee, one Issaquah resident wrote that when the Highlands development first came to the city, they were promised a “green” community.

“The concept of the proposed urban village was not just about building lots of ‘green’ houses,” the letter said. “It promised a movement away from fossil fuel dependency and automobiles because people would live, work and play within the community. But now we learn of a proposal to build a gas station? That would seem to be a complete reversal of the original Highlands proposal.”

Citing the increasing demand and finite supplies for petroleum, the resident pleaded with the committee to “take climate concerns into consideration as you ponder another gas station in the city, especially at a time when the culture shifts away from fossil fuels.”

Which brings the debate to alternative energy sources, a field in which the City of Issaquah is doing much to educate itself.

Last week The Reporter suggested to Boeker that insisting on the inclusion of alternative energy sources in a new gas station would be an example of corporate leadership in promoting sustainable industry, as they had done with an insistence on green building and architecture in the Highlands.

Boeker said that they would be unlikely to insist that a gas station operator provide capacity for alternative energy fuels.

“The market place will decide what they will offer,” he said. “We will push for good design. But it is wrong to ask someone to incur such an expense before the marketplace is ready.”

On Tuesday Major Development Review Team program manager Keith Niven sat down to lunch with Boeker and chair of the council land use committee, councilmember John Rittenhouse. Following that meeting Niven told The Reporter the three men discussed options for the proposed station that would promote the use of alternative energy sources, such as ethanol and compressed natural gas.

One of those, Niven said, could even see the city becoming a partner in the gas station, although he stressed that at the moment they are “just kicking the ball around.”

“The three things that the city said they wanted to know were; one, can we be assured that the environment will be protected; two, does the community want it; and, three, how do we make sure that we reflect the green nature of the community,” he said. “Does the city want to use the carrot or the big stick? It is probably a bit more on the carrot side of the spectrum.”

Niven was referring to the city’s eagerness to make sure any new gas station makes allowances for alternative fuels.

“The city could be draconian and mandate a, for example, hydrogen pump, and then find in two years that it is not used,” he said. “That’s the struggle, how do we make it a facility that can transition? One idea is to reserve a portion of the property that can only be used for alternative fuels, when they become more available in the future.”

“Issaquah Highlands’ transportation component is designed to meet the practical needs of residents while reducing the total number of miles car owners drive,” Boeker said this week. “The pedestrian-friendly design of the community encourages walking over short car trips, while the fiber-optic network makes it possible for more people to work from home and avoid the commute altogether. In the same way, locating a gas station in Issaquah Highlands makes sense because it would at the very least cut in half the miles car owners currently drive to buy gas – and therefore significantly reduce overall miles travelled.”

Environmental and traffic studies are now being done. The findings will be presented to the land use committee at their next meeting in July. 14.

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