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When light rail goes through your kitchen, you’re going to speak up | Residents concerned Sound Transit will steamroll city, property owners
Susan Huenefeld wasn’t going to speak last Monday at a public hearing for land use code amendments concerning East Link’s future alignment in Bellevue. But when she saw a green line drawn through hers and her neighbor’s property in a slideshow visualization of screening on 112th, Huenefeld changed her mind.
“That green line on the earlier slides, goes straight through my kitchen, living room and dining room,” said Huenefeld as the hearing drew to a close. “I didn’t buy my house over 18 years ago, to have the enormous douglas-fir torn down so that I could have a beautiful view of light rail, 10 feet from my house.”
Last October, the council began a series of meetings to amend land use codes that didn’t anticipate East Link’s extension into Bellevue. The land use code “overlay” will inform future permit processes, development and design standards as the project moves forward. And for many residents of the Enatai and Surrey Downs neighborhoods, whose homes will be the most affected by the alignment, it’s a critical moment for property owners.
“There’s no recourse for property owners in this LUC,” said Arjun Sirohi, Huenefeld’s neighbor along 112th Avenue Southeast. Both have long voiced their concern to Sound Transit and the city, most notably about the possibility of partial acquisition, which would allow ST to purchase all but a sliver of grass and the back deck in either yard.
But now they’re worried the overlay will set an unfair precedent for Sound Transit, allowing them to steamroll the city and property owners on future occasions.
“The debate is already done,” said Sirohi, who clarifies that he’s not trying to banish East Link from Bellevue. “They’ve decided on the alignment. Now it’s about the LUC, and what are the rights of the property owners.”
Over the weekend, Huenefeld paused to lead a brief tour of the properties lining 112th, where East Link would construct a portion of its alignment. The exact details of construction won’t be determined until later this spring when savings estimates come in. But Huenefeld is also wary of the environmental complications of building the alignment along a wetland sensitive area, just north of Mercer Slough Nature Park, itself briefly considered for light rail.
She points to a puddle at the back of her property, standing water she says is there almost year-round after the sidewalk was built. When 112th was constructed, some neighbors remember a tractor disappearing in the middle of the night as it sunk into the marshy terrain. In fact, says Huenefeld, when repaired, the road had to eventually be constructed on Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) panels, to counteract poor soil conditions.
Huenefeld doesn’t think any environmental review could accurately predict the amount of water each of the trees has absorbed along the slough.
“That’s where they’re proposing putting this,” says Huenefeld. “If Sound Transit really does push it and figure out how to not make it sink, it’s just going to cost so much. That’s to me, wasted taxpayer money.”
Bernard van de Kamp, Transportation Assistant Director for the city of Bellevue, says he hears resident concerns, but that Sound Transit meets federal standards for noise mitigation and environmental protection. The question now, is whether Bellevue councilmembers think they need to go above and beyond federal and state requirements.
At the end of March, Sound Transit will publish an addendum to the environmental review that addresses alignment changes considered during the cost savings process, such as those along 112th. Places along 112th will need ground improvements, says Don Billen, East Link deputy project director. In locations where the soil isn’t firm enough to support the weight of the light rail system, columns will be inserted into the ground, stretching down to harder soil. One alignment tweak will also consider crossing to the west side of 112th sooner, allowing for access to better soil.
The City Council met again Tuesday, Feb. 19 to discuss topics that came up during the public hearing. Discussions of setback and buffering were revisited. The council plans to vote on the overlay next Monday.
“It looked to me like City Council finally understood,” said Huenefeld of the stories and concerns shared during last week’s hearing. “I’ve been talking to them and writing letters for years, but it seems like this time something shifted and they really understood…If people and homeowners and property rights aren’t respected by the city or other government, then that sets a precedent. This is important, not just for Bellevue but everywhere.”