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Peoples Greenstreet Project on South Orcas

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On a day of driving rain and snow in March, which perfectly demonstrated the effectiveness of the project, a hardy gathering of neighbors, design professionals, and city and county staff celebrated the official opening of the South Orcas Greenstreet project. 

The South Orcas Greenstreet is an innovative, community-driven natural drainage project developed by Cari Simson, a Georgetown neighborhood leader and former staff to the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition.   It’s a great example of how people in Seattle can take the lead in challenging environmental problems – and how local government and businesses can embrace and support this activism.  And, unfortunately, how our regulations can make life difficult for this assemblage of people of good will.  But we can change all that!

Six households on South Orcas joined together to create rain gardens in front of their houses.  Before the project, water ponded in low points on this relatively flat street, and did not flow evenly towards the storm drain.  King County is looking for ways to reduce street runoff into the drain anyway, because this drain is a combined sewer, and has overflows into the Duwamish.  This project will divert an estimated 5,376 gallons of runoff per year – a modest part of solving the overflow problem, but such projects can add up over time, and King County welcomed this as a demonstration and a real contribution.

Fortunately, this street has a wide planting strip, so there was space for rain garden swales.  The community received funding from the legal settlement fund that the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance uses to encourage community projects, along with in-kind services from SvR Design and Gary Merlino Construction. 

The City wanted to help make it happen as well, but unfortunately there are rules that had to be followed, and that meant that the Street Improvement Permit required an engineering survey ($10,000), a $5200 surety bond for the construction, and an inspection fee of $2200 – all for a $32,000 project.  It is the rule for any street project that requires curb cuts, but the rule did not contemplate community efforts like this one.  These kind of rules are very important to managing the right-of-way when a major development is planning to take actions that affect the street, but this is a different type of project.

Fortunately, City Departments recognized that this was way out of proportion, and clearly would discourage such efforts, which we want to encourage.  I asked the Departments to pull together a team to design a permit process that could apply to these kinds of projects, and they agreed.  If it requires legislation to make community work like this possible, I am happy to sponsor that, but we think it can likely be done within the Departments, by carefully carving out an exception process to the standard system.

Once again, the people of Seattle have shown that they want to be part of solving community problems, an attitude that the City fosters through much of our work, particularly the Neighborhood Matching Fund.  But sometimes we need to find a way to get out of the way of the community, and I am confident that we can find a way to make that possible!

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