Battle over 9-acre rezone in southeast Olympia continues

ahobbs@theolympian.comJanuary 3, 2014 

For four years and counting, the owners of a 9-acre parcel in southeast Olympia have tried to rezone the property for higher housing density, but some residents say the proposal would bring unwanted traffic and congestion.

The site is on an unincorporated “island” near Boulevard Road, just south of Pacific Avenue. In 2009, longtime landowner Medela Group applied with Thurston County to rezone the area and open the door for developments such as apartment buildings.

Currently zoned for four-to-eight residential units per acre, the site is bordered on the west by Chambers Street SE; to the north by Forest Funeral Home and Cemetery; to the south by I-5; and to the east by Puget Sound Energy property.

Medela co-owner Melvin Armstrong said that rezoning to “residential multifamily 18” status would give the company more flexibility with the land. One option after rezoning is to sell the land for development, although no decisions have been made, he said.

Armstrong’s family bought land in that area in 1942, and he grew up there. As a family business, Medela owns all nine single-family houses on the land, two of which are unoccupied because of their condition.

In response to the rezoning request, a group of residents appealed an environmental evaluation for the site. The residents cited potential harm to nearby wetlands and wildlife such as the Mazama pocket gopher. A county hearing examiner denied the appeal in February 2013.

Teresa Goen-Burgman of Forest Funeral Home and Cemetery, which borders the site to the north, said she hopes the Medela property maintains its original zoning. She noted that members of the local Muslim community have raised objections to multistory apartment buildings possibly overlooking the cemetery.

Forest Cemetery is home to the county’s only Muslim burial site, where the graves are aligned at 17.5 degrees northeast toward Mecca. Deceased family members are buried without caskets. In a March 2013 letter addressed to the board of county commissioners, Ismael Hassan of the Cham Muslim Community said rezoning would allow a developer to build three-story apartment complexes that would overlook the cemetery and violate the privacy for Muslim families during burials.

Joe Hanna lives on Chambers Street SE, which borders the western edge of the Medela site. Hanna is concerned about the potential effect on his home’s property value, along with the spike in traffic on what is basically a one-lane street. He will continue to fight the rezoning every step of the way, he said, noting that residents of the area have not been fully heard.

“Apartment buildings don’t fit in a historic neighborhood,” Hanna said. “If you rezone, they’re going to build them, and if you build them, they will come.”

Ron Niemi, a land-use consultant from Woodard Bay Works, is working on behalf of Medela to rezone the property. The property has the potential to provide housing for people from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, he said.

Likewise, the site is in the Olympia Urban Growth Area, which establishes “smart growth” regulations for residential and mixed-use developments.

“This land is well under-utilized,” Niemi said.

“We’ve been stonewalled every step we’ve taken,” Armstrong said of the rezoning effort. “We don’t want to do anything to hurt the area or the community because we have a lot of roots there.”

Armstrong said the rezoning could help increase county and city tax revenue if a developer builds new housing.

“To think that a three-story building would be objectionable, that’s pushing the limits of reasonable thought,” said Armstrong, adding that “we’re not going to bring in the bulldozers the day after it’s rezoned.”

The rezoning process is expected to go before the Thurston County Board of Commissioners in early 2014, although no specific time frame has been set. The Olympia City Council is also expected to discuss the issue at its Tuesday meeting at City Hall.

The Medela site is in an area that Olympia plans to annex in 2014. However, the county is the lead agency for the rezoning effort.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com

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