Flood Plain Levee Victory

Seattle King County REALTORS® Worked to Ensure Victory of Kent Levee Design

The King County Council – sitting as the King County Flood Control District Board of Supervisors – voted 8 to 0 on February 26, 2013 to approve the City of Kent’s design for the Briscoe and Desimone flood levees on the Green River in North Kent. Councilmember Lambert was unable to attend the meeting.

SEATTLE KingCounty REALTORS® worked to ensure the victory, and were joined by the Property Owners for Sensible Flood Plain Regulations Coalition, Attorney Molly Lawrence, Jeanette McKague of Washington REALTORS®, Masterbuilders, BOMA, property owners, cities, the Port of Seattle, elected officials and business owners.

The sections of the Green River levee – which had been the subject of an extended and contentious dispute between the City of Kent and the Executive Branch of King County – is intended to provide flood protection for the Boeing Space Center, IKEA, Starbucks roasting plant, the Alaska Airlines call center, transportation corridors, infrastructure facilities, homeowners and Kent-area businesses that employee more than 18,000 workers.

The primary point of contention between the City and the County was whether to rely on a flood wall that would be constructed on the backside of the existing levees (as preferred by the City), or to purchase land adjacent to the river and construct a new earthen levee that would be setback several hundred feet from the river (as preferred by some in the county courthouse).

The cost of the City’s approach is $17.5 million and could be completed this year. The County’s approach would likely cost four times more than that, eventually escalating to more than $400 million, and could take 20 years to complete. It would also exhaust the King County Flood District’s $36 million annual budget for decades. That, in turn, would leave the District with no funds to invest in flood prevention levees elsewhere on the Green River between Tukwila and Auburn, or on other rivers in King County, or for the Seattle flood wall. Not surprisingly, officials from the Port of Seattle, Tukwila, Renton and Auburn all showed up to support Kent’s approach when the County vote was taken on February 26, 2013.

Environmentalists who argued before the Flood District’s Executive Committee for adoption of a setback levy were strongly rebuked by self-described “strong environmentalist” Julia Patterson who said Kent’s approach was the much better environmental option. Patterson chairs the Flood District Board of Supervisors. She pointed out that any benefit for ESA-listed salmon and steelhead would be very small because this stretch of the Green River is not used by fish for spawning. In addition, the setback levee preferred by environmentalists would be armored with large rip-wrap boulders that provide poor fish habitat at and below the river’s waterline (unlike Kent’s design that would provide a flood wall on the backside of the flood levee leaving the natural streamside vegetation in place). Further, she said, the setback levee approach would consume all the funding that could produce much larger environmental benefits elsewhere on the Green River if Kent’s levee design were to be approved. “I’m taking the environmentally responsible vote here,” said Patterson.

The real estate industry, Kent officials, property owners and business owners were concerned that if the levee isn’t repaired in a manner sufficient to be accredited by FEMA as capable of withstanding a 100-year flood, vast areas of the valley floor from Auburn to Tukwila would be included in the flood plain for the first time when FEMA issues new flood maps.

This would mean property owners in the West Coast’s second largest warehouse district would have to buy flood insurance at significantly increased rates because of changes in the 2012 federal legislation that re-authorized the National Flood Insurance Program, or NFIP. The NFIP (administered by FEMA) provides flood insurance for properties located in areas that FEMA has identified as being in the flood plain.

Property owners who develop or re-develop properties would also confront new onerous development regulations that mandate compliance with a highly controversial Endangered Species Act Biological Opinion issued by NOAA Fisheries (formerly called the National Marine Fisheries Service).

The $17.5 million project approved by the County will be funded by a $7 million state grant, with the rest of the funds expected to come from King County Flood District property tax revenues. The District receives $36 million annually in property taxes that are paid by all property owners in the county.